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Children & Young People's Emotional Health

Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety is how we describe the feelings some children have when they are apart from those who make them feel safest – often their parents or carers. Most babies and children will find separation hard at times.

Separation anxiety is an expected developmental stage. Some children will struggle with it for longer and at different times because of their life experiences and / or individual personality.

At around six months old you will probably notice that your baby worries when you are out of sight. Developmentally your baby has realised that they are a separate person from you and can be left behind. This is hard for them and often the beginning of some ‘separation anxiety’.

For the next few years you will probably notice some times when they seem ‘clingy’ and upset when they can’t be close to you.

Some children will continue to feel separation anxiety throughout childhood - some or all of the time. It might be triggered by upsets or changes in their life that make them feel ‘wobbly’ or they may just be more prone to worrying.

If your baby or child has separation anxiety they may well get very upset at parting from you. It can be hard for parents to understand what it is all about, but the feelings and worry about being separated from you are very real for your child.

Whatever the age of your child your understanding of how hard this feels for them is important. The way you react and support them can help them feel better and less worried about being apart. It may take time to build their confidence but it is important they learn that they can cope and you are both still safe when separated.

Dive Deeper

Babies & Toddlers

You are the centre of your baby’s world. They rely on you for everything. In the early months you have responded to all of their needs and made them feel safe and secure. It is not surprising that when they begin to understand that you could leave them behind, they feel worried and upset if you are out of sight.

Help them begin to feel confident by building up from very short moments when they can’t see you. Games like peek-a-boo are good early ways of showing your baby you always come back.

Supporting Separation 

Help your baby practice being apart from you at home first;

  • Always tell your baby if you are leaving the room ‘Daddy is just going in the kitchen to get your drink – I’ll be right back.’
  • If your baby cries for you – let them hear your voice. 'Daddy is coming I’m getting your drink.’
  • When you come back in the room say ‘Here I am – Daddy is back – you are fine.’ Then distract your baby with their toys.

Once your baby is mobile they will probably follow you. Let them do this when they can do so safely; it will help them realise that you don’t ‘disappear’ when you are out of sight.

Leaving Your Child With Others

Your baby might have to be left with other family and friends, childminders or at nursery. If you know this is going to happen build up to it. It is important that the number of different people who look after your baby is kept as low as possible and your child has had the chance to meet them.

When you first leave them with family or friends, it should be;

  • With someone they know.
  • In a familiar place and / or with familiar things.
  • For as short a time as possible. Always say goodbye (but keep it short and sweet) and always say hello when you return.
  • Always leave a contact number if you are leaving the house.

If your baby is really upset go back to them – you can try again another time soon.

Nurseries and childminders should be able to guide you on their policies to help your child get used to them, settle in and adjust to spending time there without you.

Be careful that you do not pass on your own anxieties. Your baby will pick up on your feelings and so it is important that you seem confident and give them the message this is going to be fine.

If you are feeling worried talk to friends and family to get support or you can join our online local parent community below. People who have been through this with their own children will remember how hard it can be to begin with.

Pre-Schoolers

Children go through lots of developmental change and new experiences as they grow up. This can make them feel uncertain sometimes and they will look to you to help them feel safe and secure.

If your child seems to be clingy and / or get distressed when you are not close by have a think about what is going on for them.

It might be something obvious like starting nursery or a new baby in the family. It could be something less obvious like picking up on arguments and bad feelings in the home or changes in routines.

Your child might be showing that they need extra time being close to you. Try and spend some time together. This could just mean more cuddles and story time, or a walk to the shop where you concentrate on each other.

Your child might struggle at particular times. Some children may find being left at nursery or playgroup hard. This can be upsetting for you both.

  • Read stories about children going to nursery. Talk to them about the characters and how they might feel. Point out the teacher caring for the children and the parent coming back.
  • Allow plenty of time for drop off, and always be there at the time you said you would be to collect them.
  • Let your child take along a loved teddy/ blanket or something of yours like a scarf or a jumper -  something that helps them keep their connection with you and with home.
  • Let nursery know they are struggling – they can help you with saying goodbye and comfort your little one until they feel better. They will have seen this before.

Keep going – give them comfort and let them know you understand they are finding it hard. Show that you believe they can do it. Given time most children settle and feel confident that you will be back soon and can enjoy their time at nursery.

Younger Children

Starting school is a big step for children and their families. Most children will have some days when they are not keen to go. For some the early weeks and months at school can be really tough, as they adjust to new people and experiences.

Preparing your child for starting school can help them feel more confident about what to expect. 

You can help your child settle by;

  • Letting them see the school on open days (or look online when this can’t happen). Walk around the outside. Practice the walk to school.
  • Talking about the routine of the school day so they know when you will be there to collect them.
  • Having a short but ‘special’ goodbye and the same for ‘hello’ at the end of the day. It might mean a funny handshake or it could be a rhyme or special words you say to each other. These routines can help your child feel secure and build confidence that you go - but also come back.
  • A teddy in your pockets can help too – you have small teddy and so does your child. Agree to swap and look after each other’s teddy for the time you are apart. It gives another message that you will be back for them (and your teddy).
  • Practice relaxation techniques they can use when they feel stressed and worried.
  • Talk to school if you think your child might struggle. They are used to giving extra support to children.

Build in time to just be with them after school and at weekends. Encourage them to talk about their day and their feelings.

Read more about getting school ready

Ongoing Worries

Even if children have just settled in or have been attending school for a long time, there may still be spells when the distress at being left comes back. If this happens talk to your child and school to see what might have triggered this. Think about any changes that have happened in their home life that might have unsettled them.

Children might worry about things that happen in the school day or that something bad could happen to you whilst you are apart.

Try not to get frustrated or annoyed by your child’s need to be with you. Even though it might be difficult to understand why they are struggling. It is hard for them and they cannot help it. It will pass in time. Get support for yourself from friends and family. 

Older Children & Teens

For many children separation anxiety mostly disappears as they get older. For some older children and teenagers it continues to be something they find hard, or becomes difficult for the first time. This can be for all sorts of reasons.

Young people can find this difficult as developmentally they are beginning to want to be with friends more and do things more independently. Separation anxiety can get in the way of what they would like to be doing.

Signs of Separation Anxiety

Your child might show they have separation anxiety in slightly different ways as they get older.

  • They might have pains and illnesses on schooldays.
  • Avoid or cancel meeting up with friends/ going on sleepovers/ school trips even things that they had been looking forward to.
  • Worry a lot about ‘bad things happening’ to you and others they care about.

It is a really tough age to struggle with separation anxiety. It gets in the way of being able to enjoy school or to be with friends.

  • Talk to your child about what you have noticed. Being able to tell you about their worries will help. Try not to dismiss how they feel and tell them it is ‘silly’. The anxiety is real to them and it is important they know their feelings count.
  • Using relaxation techniques will help – the feelings of anxiety are often very physical, having ways to manage this can really help your child take back some control from their worries.
  • Encourage them to try and ‘challenge the worry’.

Supporting Separation Anxiety

Avoiding the thing that makes them anxious might make it feel better in the moment. But It will not prove to your child that their worry is not a fact. This can mean the anxiety keeps holding them back.

It is not easy but doing the thing they are worried about can show them that they can do it. It shows them nothing bad will happen. It will be hard at first but if they keep trying it will get easier over time.

Help them make a plan to give time apart a try. It will help them feel more in control. For example if they are invited to meet a friend they could;

  • Start with a short time to begin with.
  • Know that they can call you if they need to be reassured.
  • Come back earlier if they need to. Prepare an excuse in advance so they don’t have to feel embarrassed.

Trying to challenge the anxiety is the important thing but it can take time to reach their goal. Praise them for this and get them to see the progress they make even if it is slow.

If school attendance is a problem talk to school as soon as you can; they will be able to offer support to you and your child.

Some young people will need extra help to overcome their separation anxiety. Getting help can make all the difference. It can mean they can enjoy school life and being with friends.

Who can Help?

If you are worried about the affect COVID-19 has had on your child, talk to school or call Just One Number to talk to a health professional. You can contact the Healthy Child Programme by calling Just One Number on 0300 300 0123 or texting Parentline on 07520631590. Our opening hours are 8am-6pm Monday-Friday (excluding bank holidays) and 9am-1pm on Saturdays.

If you are 11-19 you can text ChatHealth on 07480 635060 for confidential advice from one of our team.

For adults Qwell provides free, safe and anonymous mental wellbeing support for adults in Norfolk and Waveney from a professional team of qualified counsellors.

For 11–25 year olds Kooth is a free, confidential and safe way to receive online counselling, advice and emotional well-being support. 

Childline - Children and young people under 19 can call 0800 1111 for free support.

Young Minds Parents Helpline - Call 0808 802 5544 for free Mon-Fri from 9.30am to 4pm.

To speak to other Norfolk parents and carers, you can join our online community forum below.

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