Photo: Martin Yaffe
Guest post by Ryan Rivera
Separation anxiety is a common problem in young children. Separation anxiety can lead to attachment disorders, as well as other anxiety issues like social anxiety and generalized anxiety disorder. While much of anxiety has a genetic component, the reality is that many parents are actually performing behaviors that can create separation anxiety in otherwise emotionally healthy children unintentionally, simply by the way they behave around their child.
Even the best parents can create separation anxiety in their children, which is why it’s very important that you watch your behaviors and make good choices when it comes to how you act in front of your kids. Below are several techniques for reducing the risk of your child developing separation anxiety.
First and foremost, it’s important to find a way to control your own anxiety. Children are incredibly skilled at picking up on their parents anxieties and worries. If you’re too concerned about leaving your child somewhere, chances are your child will be equally concerned at being left alone. Your own anxieties need to be in control to prevent this from happening.
The long goodbye is a great example of a behavior that can be an issue for your child. If you sit there and cry and hug your child as though you might be leaving forever (no matter how often you tell them you’ll be back), you’re leaving your child alone after instilling them with both a great deal of sadness and energy. They’ll miss you before you even leave, and they’ll experience that loss even harder once you’ve left. Goodbyes should be short and sweet, as though nothing is wrong and nothing will change.
Another issue is fear reinforcement. When your child does experience fear when you’re leaving and runs to you, if you respond by hugging your child hard and picking them up and saying “it’s okay, you’ll be okay” and showing a great deal of emotion (or crying yourself), the child’s fears will be reinforced, because they’ll see that not only are you sharing in their fear, but they’re also being rewarded for experiencing that fear with hugs and love and a reaction.
Another issue is that children that are left for the first time are often left without any warning. Suddenly, one day, they’re left. Whether it’s at school or a babysitter, parents suddenly leave after being around for most (or all) of their child’s life. This can be stressful and may be one of the causes of attacks of anxiety within your child. You can train your child out of this slowly by performing behaviors that get them used to you leaving. For example, first you could try leaving the child in another room for a while. Then try standing outside of the door. Then try leaving for five minutes and coming back (all while a friend is watching them). You can also do this at other people’s houses, and really make sure that they’re used to the idea of you leaving before you’ve ever left them anywhere.
Finally, no matter how well you’ve prepared them for your absence, your child is bound to experience some anxiety while you’re gone. When you come home, you also need to make sure that you’re not reinforcing that anxiety. It’s best not to come home and immediately run and hug your child and tell them how much you missed them, giving the impression that they were in danger while you were gone. Rather, come home casually, smile at your child, and go about your day rather than giving the impression it was very hard for you to leave. Once an adequate amount of time has passed, you can follow that up by giving your child a lot of extra love.
Separation anxiety is just another potential cause of long term anxiety problems with children. The behaviors described above are simple and easy to implement, and can have a profound effect on your child’s ability to be left with strangers or alone, and in their emotional development.
Ryan Rivera’s parents were very loving, but that love caused them to perform a variety of behaviors that contributed to his separation anxiety. Now that he’s cured he writes about anxiety for others at www.calmclinic.com