What Young Children Need You to Know About Separation Anxiety

emotional intelligence  positive parenting 

By Guest Author

What Young Children Need You to Know About Separation Anxiety

By Rebecca Eanes

Children don’t come with instructions. That’s a good thing according to author Bridgett Miller. In her book, What Young Children Need You to Know, Miller says, “The upside of not having a manual - and it’s a big one - is that it releases us from comparing our children with those who live in a textbook. Accepting that there isn’t a single book or resource that offers complete and accurate insight into your unique child may feel unsettling, but it’s also the key to unlocking the door to begin trusting yourself to capably raise your children by relying on both your head and your heart.”

Still, there are things our children need us to know and understand about them, and while there may not be a single resource that encompasses everyone, I trust Miller to help me understand the developmental needs and milestones of young children. She is a preschool and elementary teacher, remedial therapist, presenter, parent consultant, and an authorized facilitator of the Neufeld Institute with almost two decades of experience.

Children are born with a need for attachment and so it stands to reason that separation is a great fear for many children. This doesn’t mean we cannot ever be separated from them, but rather that we take time to understand the development aspect of this issue so that we can fulfill their need for attachment in our absence. To help us do this, I proposed this question to Miller: “Separation anxiety stresses a lot of parents out. As you put it, ‘When parents get rattled by their children’s fear, they often panic and try to implement an approach that typically works on a mature brain.’ How can parents better understand separation anxiety and support their children through it?” 

She responded: 

“A human’s greatest need is attachment. A child instinctively knows that if they are to survive, they need to be with those who will take care of them. The younger the child, the more reliant they are on being physically close to their deepest attachments in order to feel safe and secure. A child who senses a threat, even if it is perceived rather than real, will move away from danger and toward security. Young children are wired to seek physical closeness with those to whom they are most deeply attached, and this is particularly appropriate when they feel unsure or frightened. There is nothing dysfunctional about that.
As adults we know we can trust other caring people to watch over our children, but young children don’t feel this way until they have a connection with the person who will be caring for them in our absence. We may inadvertently overlook this important insight by trying to cognitively reason with them when they become distressed. We may list all of the reasons they don’t need to be afraid and try and convince them to see things differently but, what they truly need, is a deeper sense of connection with the person we are leaving them with. 
There are some things you can do to foster a connection between the child and other adults and to help them feel tethered to you even when you’re apart. These include talking about the caregiver in a kind and friendly way, finding things the child has in common with them, and putting the focus on what it is you will do when you are together again just before you leave them.”

Dr. Gordon Neufeld of the Neufeld Institute says, “We don’t need to learn to grow up. We need to feel to grow up.” Development cannot be taught. Children must simply be allowed to feel their wide range of emotions. As they grow and mature, they will better be able to handle separation, but it is helpful just to know that this is normal and not indicative of a disorder. Children are wired to need contact and closeness, and as the child gets more connected to the other adults in their lives, the less anxiety they will feel when their mom or dad leaves them in their care. 

Bridgett’s colleague, Rest, Play, Grow author Dr. Deborah MacNamara suggests deepening your own attachment to your child. She says, “Our best bet to fuel growth is to provide generously for children’s dependence needs by providing undivided attention where possible and conveying through words and deeds that we are trustworthy when it comes to their caretaking. When children feel their dependency needs are taken care of, the bias to become their own person and ‘do it myself’ will open up.” 

MacNamara also suggests allowing your child to have her tears over the separation. When we tell them that it’s not a big deal or not to cry, we are diminishing their feelings. Tears are a natural way to release anxiety and fears and to come to accept a situation that cannot be changed. She says someone must be there to “collect the tears” - that is to help them express their sadness in a safe space. 

Take heart. Your child will eventually be able to endure separation, and in fact, one day you’ll feel there is entirely too much separation between the two of you. Now that I’m raising a teenager, I sometimes feel I’m the one suffering from separation anxiety. For now, a bit of patience, knowledge, and love will help everyone through. 

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