Separation anxiety

Written by Ellen Hoggard

Ellen Hoggard

Counselling Directory Content Team

Last updated on 6th May, 2022

Separation anxiety is a condition where the child becomes nervous and fearful when separated from a parent, carer or are away from home.

What is separation anxiety?

Generally, children will go through a clingy stage during their development. This is completely normal. It’s natural for young children to feel a sense of anxiety when they’re separated from their parents - after all, their parents are who they associate with love and safety. But if this behaviour continues, it may be a sign of separation anxiety.

A child with separation anxiety may experience physical symptoms at the thought of being away from a parent, such as a headache or a sore tummy. This fear of separation can be very distressing for the child, as well as the rest of the family. Over time, this upset can interfere with their development and participation in normal activities, such as going to school and making friends.

Counsellor Michaela Sheppard explains more about separation anxiety and how therapy can help.


Signs of separation anxiety in children

Separation anxiety is common in children aged between six months and three years, so don’t worry if they appear overly attached. In fact, this is often a sign of how well you’ve bonded. We know how difficult it can be to leave when your child is crying, but this shouldn’t last forever - most children will grow out of this phase after three years.

If their anxiety worsens or intensifies, however, there’s a risk it may develop into a separation anxiety disorder. Below are some of the common signs of separation anxiety in children.

  • They have an unrealistic and continuous worry that if they are away, something bad will happen to the parent or carer, or themselves.
  • They refuse to go to school.
  • They need to sleep near their parent or refuses to sleep away from home.
  • They have nightmares about being away.
  • They’re scared of being alone.
  • Repeated tantrums or pleading when a parent leaves.
  • They experience physical symptoms (headaches or sickness), especially on school days.

If you’re worried about your child’s anxiety, the first port of call is your GP. They can assess the situation and recommend suitable treatment, or refer you for further support.


What causes separation anxiety?

It is thought that separation anxiety can develop after the child has experienced significant stress or trauma. This may include an illness which led to a stay in hospital, the death of a loved one or a change in environment, such as moving house or changing schools.

And separation anxiety doesn’t only affect children, in fact, many parents can experience separation anxiety too. Parents can feel guilty about leaving their child in such distress and may worry about their adjustment when starting school or going away. So, if a parent experiences separation anxiety, the child may pick up on the behaviours. This may lead to both parent and child feeding the other’s anxiety.


Support for separation anxiety

Separation anxiety can make it incredibly difficult to leave your child in someone else’s care (with a babysitter, or at school for example). When they are clinging to your leg, crying and screaming, it can leave you feeling distressed. Seeing your child cry can be very upsetting - you may worry about their adjustment, and the effects this is having on them. But remember that for the most part, this is an entirely normal reaction.

If this is a case of separation anxiety, however, and you and your child are experiencing a lot of distress, it can help to seek further support. Talk to loved ones about how you’re feeling - trying to cope on your own can often leave you feeling exhausted and even more upset. And talk to your doctor. They will listen to your concerns and offer some advice on the next steps.

Counselling for separation anxiety

Your doctor may refer your child to your local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) for help and support. Depending on their age, your child may not want to speak to a doctor. If this is the case, know that other resources are available, such as youth counselling services (set up specifically for young people to talk about what’s worrying them) and online or telephone helplines.

Therapists who work with separation anxiety in children

Counselling can be helpful for both your child and the rest of the family, too. A counsellor is someone who can listen to your concerns and feelings and can offer advice and coping techniques. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a common treatment method for separation anxiety - it’s a talking therapy that can help your child understand and manage their worries, by changing the way they react and behave in certain situations.

If your child is very young, CBT may not be an effective method. Depending on their age, behaviours and the severity of the anxiety, the counsellor may suggest other therapies, such as play therapy, family therapy or art therapy.

Play therapy can help with a wide range of issues such as anxiety, separation anxiety and relationships at school or with their siblings... The point is to reiterate that no matter what is on offer in the play therapy room, it is the therapeutic relationship between the child and the therapist that will be the most important, and crucial criteria for the therapy to be effective. 

-   Diane Feeney in Play therapy: Providing UPR for little people!

Support as a parent: If you're worried about your child

Being a parent isn’t easy, and nobody likes to see their child upset. But separation anxiety can make you feel very alone, as though you’re the only one feeling such stress. If you work, you may feel guilty leaving your child in distress. Perhaps you worry about how they’re coping at school, without you. Maybe you just miss them needing you.

While these feelings are totally normal, there are ways you can manage your stress.

Stay busy

Whether your child is away for the day at school, or away for the weekend, having a busy schedule you can keep your mind from wandering. Even if you don’t really want to do anything, try to follow a routine and allow yourself to adjust.

Enjoy the free time

Think of this as your chance to focus on yourself. Parenting takes all your time so when you get these moments, try and treasure them. Book a day of fun with your partner, get back into cooking, catch up with friends or finally start decorating that second bedroom.

Seek peer support

Don’t forget all the other parents around you, who probably understand how you feel or have been through similar situations. You can get together to discuss how you feel, or something different. Your fellow parents and friends are there to support you - lean on them.

Have a positive attitude

Unfortunately, children are very skilled in picking up the emotions of those around them. If you’re feeling sad or nervous, it’s likely they will pick up on some of this. Parental separation anxiety can often transfer to children, making their own anxieties more intense and in turn, causing you distress. Try to remain enthusiastic and have a positive attitude when talking to your child, so to avoid them getting upset or feeling guilty for leaving.

Swap a treasure

If you and your child are worried about being separated, suggest a treasure swap. You can either make each other a trinket or give them something you care about and ask them to give you something in return. These small treasures act as comforters, reminding you of each other when you’re separated.

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