Fear of separation can show up in more ways than the typical separation anxiety that we associate with the child crying or screaming at school or nursery because they don’t want their parent to go…
My 8 year old has NEVER cried at this.
However, he does worry about me not being in his life anymore.
Sometimes he frets about what life would be like if I left him or I died.
And there’s no reason, in theory, for him to think like that. His fear of me abandoning him is a far cry from mine; that I’ll never be able to let go and let him grow up.
So it’s easy for any of us to just assume our separation-sensitive kids are being a bit dramatic and tell them to either not be silly or to stop worrying.
But there’s more to it than that…
While the Covid story’s certainly birthed a lot of anxious children, very normal brain changes can play a part too.
At around the age of eight, brain development is thought to take a big leap. Children’s thinking becomes more complex; they get a stronger grasp of the world beyond themselves.
Competencies like empathy become more refined as they start to recognise that other people’s experiences and perceptions of life may be very different from their own.
And they also awaken to the truth that everything in their world – themselves included – will change with the passage of time.
Fantasy imagination is joined by ‘reality imagination’ as they realise they’ll grow up, get jobs, leave home and lose people they love.
And this can explain why some children; even those who are typically self-assured, or who have no apparent reason to worry, begin to do just that…
But, whether you’re dealing with your own version of this 👆, or simply have a child who finds that actual moment of separation painful or frightening, it can be hard to know how to deal with it; we want our kids to grow up resilient, but nothing about leaving a child in distress feels good.
I’m not going to say “Do this” because there’s no prescriptive solution; each child’s story is different.
But for the sake of our own peace of mind, know this…
Children are not designed to ‘grow out of it’.
Our new-borns entered the world hard-wired with survival reflexes which ensure they ask for connection as soon as they take their first breath.
It’s a blunt instrument, but it works.
And this reflex stays in place for life. The ‘factory settings’ of the human brain is a fear of abandonment.
While children are designed to become independent in time, we’re also a highly sociable species; none of us are biologically designed for isolation.
So whatever your child’s age, and whether you understand their unique version of separation anxiety or not, here are a few things to hold in mind…
Your child is expressing an unmet need
Our rational perspective is that they’re being irrational, but remember their experience is very, very real.
Reassuring and comforting them is not giving in or pandering.
Please ignore anyone who says or thinks this, and meet the need.
Only when your child’s needs are met can you both move forward effectively.
Try not to join in their anxiety
It’s important that we accept, empathise with and validate their emotions, but if they’re overwhelmed by fear, the belief that ‘I can’t do this’, a parent overwhelmed with fear and ‘I can’t do this’ won’t help.
Hold the space, connect, take a deep breath and the stance that you can do this together.
Express unwavering faith in your child
As distressing as it is as a parent, convey your belief in them that they have everything they need within them to cope.
Self-assurance is reassuring; use yours them to help move them forward.
Hold each other in Heart and Mind
Knowing that the person you long for is thinking of you with love; that you’re emotionally connected during a physical period of separation; can be a huge comfort.
‘Transitional objects’ are a simple and effective way to do this.
Typically, it’s a small item that a child keeps with them; a physical symbol of your love; but it can also be a drawing, a note (‘Pip & Acorn’s Little Notes’ are a perfect example), an imaginary item, a love heart drawn on their hand, a spray of your perfume on their sleeve.
Children – and adults! – are never too old for transitional objects (who else carries a little picture of their kids in their purse? 🙋♀️) so don’t worry this will stifle their independence.
Yes, our children grow up, and we have to give them room to grow, to not need us anymore.
But the trajectory of ‘growing out’ of that need is rarely a straight line.
So hold their hands, hearts and minds on that wobbly path, and meet the need!
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