Separation anxiety has an important job to do. It’s there to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.
Children (and adults) are wired to feel unsafe when there is a felt sense of separation. This anxiety drives children to restore proximity back to the safety of their important adults. If there was no separation anxiety, we’d see too many kiddos walking into the wide open arms of the world to explore faraway lands or the toy section at Target. Of course, we want them to expand their reach into the world eventually. Just not before we’ve had the opportunity to nurture the sensibility and resourcefulness they’ll need along the way.
Separation anxiety also exists in adults to keep children safe. If we truly don’t know where our children are, or if we don’t trust that they are in the safe, loving care of another adult, the distress will drive us to bring them close to us again. The problem isn’t separation anxiety, the problem is when it happens in circumstances that are actually safe.
When their distress feels too big.
Separation anxiety can feel awful for everyone – us too – but provided children are in the loving care of another adult, there is no need to avoid separation. We’ll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety rises in response to theirs. In fact, avoiding separation in circumstances where children are actually safe, will only make their separation anxiety bigger. Here’s how that works.
The brain learns from experience, so the more they avoid, the more they will be driven to avoid. As the important adult in their lives, your child’s distress will trigger distress in you. This is how it’s meant to work. It happens to mobilise us to do whatever it takes to meet their needs and keep them safe. Safety is the ultimate goal of separation anxiety. It’s connected to our survival, which is why it feels so fierce. It’s primal and instinctive, but that doesn’t mean it’s always necessary.
They key is for us to gently provide opportunities (experiences) for the brain to learn that anxiety doesn’t always mean danger. Sometimes it means there is something important or meaningful we need to do. We also need to teach the brain that there are other ways to feel safe. Staying physically close is only one of them.
There is nothing in any loving adult that will feel okay about walking away from a child in distress. But if we respond to their distress by avoiding separation, the brain will learn that the only way to feel safe is by avoiding separation. This will keep them safe and calm in the moment, but it will catastrophise separation. In the longer term, it will just make separating so much harder.
What happens at ‘goodbye’.
As big as their anxiety might be at that point of separation or in anticipation of the separation, once you have separated, they will find their way back to calm quite quickly. The adults charged with taking care of your child will often let you know this: ‘He settled straight after you left and had a lovely day!’
This happens because when you leave, the brain registers that there’s just no point fighting (as in fight/flight) to make you stay. As soon as your child accepts that you aren’t coming back, their brains and bodies let go of the fight (or flight). The stress neurochemicals surging through them start to neutralise and their brains and bodies start to rest. (We won’t always recover so quickly. I’ve been there too many times.) Of course, this doesn’t mean throwing them out of the car and speeding away like you’re behind the wheel of the getaway car. What it means is being alive to the importance of loving, definite, not-too-lengthy goodbyes. The sooner you leave, the sooner their bodies and brains can rest.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that your goodbyes will get easier straight away. If their brain has learned to associate separation with threat, it will take a while to learn that they will be safe even when they aren’t with you.
Separation anxiety: What to do.
It’s important to recognise that the behaviour that comes with separation anxiety, as big as it might be sometimes, is the symptom not the problem. To strengthen children against separation anxiety, we have to respond at the source – the felt sense of separation from you.
Whenever there is separation from an attachment person, there will be always be anxiety unless there are two things. The first is attachment with another trusted, loving adult. The second is a felt sense of you holding on to them, even when you aren’t beside them.
So what do we do? If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it needs more than an adult simply being present. Just because there is another adult in the room, doesn’t mean your child will experience a deep sense of safety with that adult. This doesn’t mean the adult isn’t safe. It’s about what the brain perceives, and that brain is looking for a deep, visceral, felt sense of safety. This will come from the presence of an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for them, and their joy in doing so. The joy in caretaking is important. It lets the child rest from seeking out the adult’s care because there will be a sense that the adult wants it enough for both.
This can be helped along by showing your young one that you trust the adult to love and care for the child and keep him or her safe in your absence: ‘I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.’ This doesn’t mean children will instantly feel the attachment, but the path towards that will be more well-lit.
To help them feel you holding on even when you aren’t with them, let them know you’ll be thinking of them and can’t wait to be with them again. I used to tell my daughter that every 15 seconds, my mind makes sure it knows where she is. Think of this as ‘taking over’ their worry. ‘You don’t have to worry about you or me because I’m taking care of both of us – every 15 seconds.’ This might also look like giving them something of yours to hold on to while you’re gone – a scarf, a note, your very precious ‘something’ – anything that will be felt as a little piece of you. Invite them to give you something of theirs too if they want to.
They’ll be looking to you.
They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they will be looking to you for signs of safety. They’ll be asking, ‘Do you see why this feels bad for me?’ ‘Do you feel it too?’ and ‘Do you think we’ll both be okay if we aren’t together?’
First, validation. All big feelings are there to recruit support. By speaking to the feeling and the need behind those feelings, we let those feelings rest. They’ve done their job, support is here. Validation might look like, ‘You really want to stay with me, don’t you. I wish I could stay with you too! It’s hard being away from your special people isn’t it.’ Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it. ‘I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can’t we.’ Convincing them might take time, and that’s okay. We’re lighting the way forward and it’s okay if they move in tiny, tiny steps. Small steps are what the big ones are made of.
And finally …
Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn’t always mean something is wrong. Mostly, it means they are on the edge of brave – and being away from you for a while counts as brave. Even if they don’t do it easily at first, when the opportunities for brave are in front of them, their brave will find them. Every time it does, it will grow more certain and more able to rise.
Separating can be so hard, and the hardness of separating will feel wrong on too many days – but that doesn’t mean it is wrong. They can be away from you and feel you holding on, loving them. The scaffold is helping them feel safe in the care of another trusted, loving adult. Children need an attachment village. The more we can do to help them feel safe in the care of the adults around them, the more we will grow their village and open their world a little wider.