How To Help An Older Child With Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety.

We’re aware of it when our children are very young. We read about it on apps and websites and we learn that playing games like ‘peekaboo’ and talking to our babies from another room can all help to combat it.

We expect it when our children are nine months old and they start waking in the night again after sleeping through (if you’re one of the lucky ones!). We expect it when we have to go back to work and our little ones start nursery or go to a childminder. We expect it when they’re little and we cope with it ok. Because we sort of know it’s coming.

But what if our four year old develops separation anxiety. Or our five year old. Or older?

This happened to us. Our Big One turned four and two weeks later, he started school. During the summer holiday before he started, his separation anxiety was at its peak. He had to be peeled off me whenever I left the house, no matter where I was going or for how long. He was waking in the night with anxiety. He was tired and we were tired and we didn’t know what to do. Playing ‘peekaboo’ and talking to him from a different room wasn’t going to work now. He was beyond that understanding, but too young to comprehend this anxiety.

I spent so much time googling possible ways to help him and, whilst Google provided endless threads from forums reassuring me I wasn’t alone in experiencing this, I found no practical ideas aside from finding the trigger.

We already knew the trigger – starting school. He was ready in every way except emotionally, and even when he started and clearly loved his days at school, it was the initial separation that was still a sticking point.

We took a step back and thought about, not what the trigger was, but how he was feeling. And from this, we came up with five simple steps which helped us to help him. It wasn’t an immediate quick fix, but it made it much more manageable for all of us:

More affection

It can be so draining when your older child has separation anxiety. You almost want to ‘teach’ them to be independent of you. But it’s important to remember that they are not choosing to feel this way; they are responding to an anxiety, often over a loss of control or change in routine. When this is the case, we need to make them feel even more secure, so that they know they can tackle these changes because you are right there, supporting them emotionally through it. Lots of cuddles and affection can never be a bad thing, especially when someone is feeling anxious.

Talk to them

Trying to help them understand why they feel anxious, can sometimes allow them to see that it’s not quite such a big thing to worry about. We often understand but they don’t – their feelings are mostly subconscious. If we can encourage them, even just to recognise the triggers, then it can help, in some way, to relieve a bit of the anxiety. If the trigger is something like starting a new school/pre-school/moving house/a new baby in the family, photos, storybooks and visits can really help.

Have special items

Our eldest’s separation anxiety reared its head again over this most recent summer holiday. Not as badly as last year but it was still pretty prevalent. He chose a teddy and I swaddled it in an old t shirt of mine. He took this with him if he went to grandparents’ houses and cuddled it in bed. It was a way of part of me being next to him, when I wasn’t physically next to him myself. This seemed to calm him and it acted a bit like a security blanket for him.

Reward chart

I have lots of different views about reward charts, based on different situations (!) but, in this instance, I was fully encouraging of it. We drew up a simple reward chart for being ‘brave’ when we separated. We explained that this meant it was fine to be sad and upset but that he would find a comforting adult and give us a wave before we said goodbye. It was how we established a ‘change-over’ from one caring adult to another for him. After a certain number of smiley faces on his chart, he got a little toy or some stickers or a comic. There were no ‘set’ squares on the chart so there were no sad faces and no missed faces. He simply got smiles for separating with a smile! And this is now why our house is littered with Mash’ems.

Don’t prolong the separation

I know this from teaching – the longer you hang around during the separation, the worse it gets, because they are constantly hoping that you’ll change your mind and stay. Once they have found their adult, it is best to do a smiley, happy wave goodbye and be off. Even if they’re screaming and your heart wants to break, whilst your feet run back to them and your arms pick them up. It is best to just go and make a clean break. They will probably have calmed down within a couple of minutes once they understand and you can cry in the car on your own where no one can see you!

Like I say, this wont be a quick fix. But it should definitely help. And one day you’ll realise it’s passed and that there are no tears and no screaming when you leave him. It will pass in its own time.

But hopefully these ideas might help pass it along a bit faster. Or at least make the ride more bearable.

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5 Comments

  1. Great tips. My husband teaches elementary school math and this year there is a student starting kindergarten who is simply unable to learn because she is so distressed about being away from her mum. So glad that you are addressing this now and sharing your wisdom.

  2. Reading this is so re-assuring. And couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time. My son has been through it when starting nursery and then again when starting pre-school, but this week he went to a new pre-school as we have just moved. So drop-offs are, as you said, emotionally challenging (for both of us), even though I know the drill and I know he’s fine after I leave and I know he will settle soon.
    Two things you said were so true – understand and empathise with them, and give them that extra comfort and attention they seek. And yes, leave as quickly as possible – prolonging it only prolongs the crying.
    Lovely read…
    #dreamTeam

  3. This is so helpful and I’m sure a lot of mums will find it useful. It’s certainly not a rare issue for older children to have this anxiety, I know my younger sister did for many, many years. But it does pass and hopefully your post will help Mums survive it haha #DreamTeam

  4. Thanks so much for sharing this post and some really great tips. I completely agree that trying to keep the actual separation bit short and sweet will help to limit how long the distress will last. We had a grilled cheese moment during drop off on the first day of school! #dreamteam xx

  5. Thank you for this, like you said there are plenty of articles and blog posts about separation anxiety in small children but not much for those aged 4 and above. Our eldest starts school next year and I’m so pleased I’ll have this to refer back to if she ever gets anxious about the time apart. Thank you for sharing with #bigpinklink x

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