Separation anxiety is a normal phase for children to go through. Babies often experience it when they first realise they are separate people from their mothers. Toddlers may go through it, adding to the joys of the terrible twos. Preschoolers often experience it when they start spending extended periods of time away from their parents. What is talked about less is separation anxiety in older children.
Separation anxiety in a 6 year old is very different from separation anxiety in a younger child. While a few wobbles at the school gates are quite normal in the first few weeks, for some children this becomes an ongoing problem. For my daughter, her separation anxiety started when she was around 6 years old, she is 9 years old now and still struggles with it.
Is it Separation Anxiety?
The first thing to do is to ascertain whether the anxiety is in fact related to separation. The initial question to consider is whether your older child is anxious about every separation or just one or two specific situations.
If it’s just when you drop them off for school but they are fine when you leave them at football club and their friend’s house, you’ll want to talk to them to find out if anything is bothering them at school. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a big problem at school like bullying or struggling with the work. It might be something simple like not being sure where to put their water bottle or not liking the noise before the class settles down. You might well find that real problem is something surprising but easy to solve.
If Separation is the Real Problem
For our 6 year old, we were sure that the issue was separation. We had tears for drop offs at school, at swimming, at Beavers, at holiday clubs and at play dates. We talked a great deal about what she was worried about but the answer was always simply “I’m going to miss you”.
We sat down together and brainstormed some of the reasons that missing me was a problem. We talked about worries that I might not come back which seemed to be part of the problem. I reassured her that I always would and am extra carefully now to never be late picking her up from anywhere.
As we talked it through it seemed like she was essentially scared of the feeling of missing me. As I know from experience that she is always fine once I leave her, I can only assume that at some point in the past she did miss me and it left her desperate never to experience it again. While I’ve seen some improvement in her separation anxiety over the years, at 9 years old, she still struggles if she’s unwell as she is more likely to miss me at those times.
The Moment of Separation is the Hard Part
For children with separation anxiety, weather they are an 9 month old or an 9 years old, it’s the moment we leave that they find the hardest. In almost every case, once we are out of sight, they move on and have a great time. While this is reassuring for us as parents, it doesn’t make walking away from your crying child any easier. You’ll need to remind yourself that they will enjoy themselves and they will be smiling when you pick them up. If they aren’t, there’s likely to be another a problem. As she has grown older, my daughter has been able to remind herself that she always has a good time at places and doesn’t actually miss me when we’re apart. That has helped her to manage our separations a lot.
We have found that it helps to be consistent with who drops off for each activity. So Mummy always does the school run and Daddy always does Basketball drop off. We particularly avoid having both parents at a drop off as it’s even harder to separate from two loved ones at the same time.
We also have a “Goodbye Ritual”. This involves doing and saying the same thing before each separation. This might be different for each parent. For us, it’s a particular combination of kisses and words with Mummy but with Daddy, it’s a secret handshake.
Rituals can help children know what to expect and move the focus from the separation to the action.
Controlling the Environment when you Separate
It can also be useful to consider the time you drop your child off. What works best will depend on the individual. For one child we found they were better if we arrived early when the adult present had time to greet them. For the other, we were better dropping off when most people had already arrived so that there were plenty of distractions and friends to greet them.
It’s also really useful to talk to the adults that you’re leaving your child with. For the most part they will have experienced separation anxiety in plenty of children and will have some useful suggestions. This might be things like giving them a special job to do or having them get on with a particular piece of work as soon as they arrive.
Mementos to Help Ease Separation Anxiety for Older Children
When older children have separation anxiety, sometimes a physical item can help them to cope. We’ve used small key rings for this with great success as they can be attached discreetly to clothes so that they don’t get lost. By having something to remind them of the parent they are missing, older children can still feel connected after you’ve separated.
Photos can also be a great way to still feel connected. We encouraged our 6 year old to fill a small album with family photos and she then keeps it in her bag to look at if she misses us. In practice, it rarely leaves the bag, but knowing it’s there helps.
She also came up with the idea of putting a picture of us in her head. When we drop her off she takes a sort of mental photo of us that she can recall whenever she wants. I love that she came up with this idea herself and she still uses it at 9.
Deciding not to Separate from your 6-8 Year Old
While I really don’t want to let separation anxiety stop my children doing things they love, there are times when I feel it’s better to not force the issue. Sometimes this happens when there are too many things happening on one day (often the case for older children). This year, the first day back at school and the first day back at Beavers where on the same day. We chose to give Beavers a miss rather than have a bad separation. If children are a bit under the weather or more tired than usual they’ll find separating from you much harder. Sometimes it’s better to give something a miss if you feel they aren’t in a state to handle the separation.
Separation Anxiety at Bedtime
Separation anxiety in older children often shows up as an unwillingness to go to bed. Children will struggle to let you leave and tears at bedtime are not conductive to falling asleep. You may be happy to stay with your child until they fall asleep which is fine if it works for you. We weren’t keen to do that so looked for other solutions. We found that staying until they were sleepy but not asleep worked quite well most of the time. However, when we were in a particularly bad phase this didn’t do the job. What has worked is popping back in to check every ten minutes until they are asleep. Knowing that we’ll be back shortly seems to be enough to stop them from getting too anxious about us leaving. You can find lots more tips in this post about separation anxiety at night.
My Top Tips for Dealing with Separation Anxiety in 6-9 Year Olds
- Remind yourself regularly that they are fine when you’ve gone so that you don’t get upset and make it worse.
- Be consistent about who drops them off for each activity.
- Have a “Goodbye” ritual, do it and then go.
- Remind them of other successful experiences of the place you’re leaving them at.
- Consider your timing, dropping them off early or later can have an impact on how hard they find it to separate.
- Talk to the teacher/adult you’re leaving them with, they are likely to have some good suggestions.
- Consider a memento like a key ring or photo to help them feel connected when they’re away from you.
- Suggest they keep a mental photo of you in their heads.
- If you think your child is under the weather or very tired, consider giving activities a miss.
- If bedtime is problem try staying until they are sleepy but not asleep or popping back every 5 or 10 minutes.
- Don’t beat yourself up, they obviously love you very much and will learn to leave you without tears eventually!
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