Author: Lesley Duff

Separation Anxiety


Separation anxiety is a common experience for all children who find it difficult to be away from their parents or carers. Children often worry about how they will cope if their parent is not present, or that harm might come to the parent when they are not with them. Bereaved children, who have already experienced the loss of someone they love, can become particularly anxious about separating from their parents or carers. Depending on the nature of the death they might worry that something else ‘bad’ might happen when they are at school or worry that they will never see them again.

We offer the following suggestions to you for supporting children who may be experiencing normal separation anxieties:

- Take your own 'emotional temperature'

As a starting point, it can be helpful to check in with your own levels of anxiety. It would be completely understandable if you too are feeling anxious about the safety of your children and others in your family. If you recognise that you are feeling anxious about your children returning to school then try not to pass this onto them. Children very easily pick up on the emotions of the adults around them so prioritise getting your own support and share your worries with your friends and family. Try not to ask your children too many questions about what is happening at school and if further reassurance would help talk directly to the school staff about your concerns.

- Take time to listen to your children's worries

Acknowledging their feelings will make them feel more secure. Try not to dismiss their anxieties or overly reassure as they may not feel that their worries have been heard. Help them to think through how they are going to manage the things they are worried about and try to install confidence in their ability to cope with the situation.

- Problem solving

Include your child in problem solving and think together about how they might manage their time away from you. It can be helpful to encourage your child to get into the habit of finding their own solutions so any ideas that they come up with should be praised, however unusual they might be! You may need to give some prompts but hopefully you can come up with some helpful coping strategies together.

- Preparation is key

Our work supporting bereaved children and young people has shown us that children cope much better when they are fully prepared for experiences which may be anxieity provoking. With the information you have available talk to them about what might happen at school when they return. Remember to remind them of all the things that will be the same, as they will find the familiarity reassuring. At the same time it is important to prepare them for things that might be different. They may have different teachers or be in different classrooms. It may be that some of their usual friends will not be there and there are likely to be specific rules about where they can plan and what they can play with.

- Develop a 'goodbye' ritual

Saying goodbye at the beginning of the school day can often be the most difficult time for children who experience separation anxiety. It might be that the normal goodbye routines will have changed and so you might want to plan your own simple goodbye ritual that will mark the time you leave. This could be an agreed signal such as special wave or you could use the ‘pocket kiss’ idea.

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- Give plenty of praise and reward

Finally, remember to give praise each time your child manages being apart from you. The praise needs to be clear and specific so that they understand exactly what they have done which you are so pleased about and giving rewards can be an effective way of letting them know how proud you are of what they have done and encourage them to continue. Rewards can be really simple such as an extra story at bedtime – your time and attention can often be the most prized reward for your children.