Separation anxiety explained for parents, baby and nanny
Separation anxiety is a much used term, and even minor disturbances around changes in routine can be viewed as ‘separation anxiety’ and therefore lead to concern. As many families plan their summer holidays, hire temp nannies or domestic staff for holidays and change their way of life, natural disturbance in children can manifest – so here’s our simple guide to separation anxiety and how parents and nanny can best help babies or young children overcome such difficulties.
What is separation anxiety?
This is a normal stage in child development. From around the age of eight months, children can become ‘clingy’ or upset when a parent departs or when they are required to leave the family home. At around a year this natural behaviour begins to fade away, especially as children develop new skills to express their feelings and new ways to manage their surroundings.
When does separation anxiety become a problem
For some children separation anxiety either escalates rather than fading, or does fade, only to recur later in life, often around the time they begin to attend structured events outside the home. In these cases, anxiety may become disruptive to the child’s routine as well as disturbing his or her natural equilibrium. Symptoms of this deeper form of separation anxiety can include:
- Claims of physical illness, often stomach ache, less often headache, just before separation events
- Irrational fears – death or some other terrible happening that will prevent the return of the person who is leaving the child
- Nightmares that play out being separated from a loved one
- Reluctance to go to sleep and fear of being alone.
General fear of attending school or nursery, or refusing to do so, are not generally part of separation anxiety, but may relate to a child’s sense of ‘personhood’ and desire to control their own lives, or may just be because the child doesn’t like a person, activity or something as nebulous as an odour, that they link to the place they are being asked to go to.
How to deal with separation anxiety
Try to dig down to the reason for separation anxiety – starting with things that you don’t need to involve your child in:
- Have you felt anxious about how your child will cope with nanny or with a change in routine? Do people describe you as ‘a worrier’? Could your child have heard you questioning whether they are ready for a certain activity … or perhaps questioning whether you are ready to return to work? In all these cases, children feed off parental concerns and learn anxiety behaviours. If this is likely to be the case, and you can act in a more relaxed fashion, they will probably relax too.
- Has there been a change in family routine? If you’ve introduced a nanny and returned to work, the answer is definitely yes! Ensuring that as much routine as possible remains in place can help a child adjust swiftly to the new way of doing things.
- Was your child exposed to a stressful situation? The arrival of a new sibling, moving house, changing bedrooms, the arrival or loss of a pet, even redecorating your home can create stress in small children who feel their environment has changed without their consent or input. Giving them some control: choosing curtains for their room, feeding a new pet, creating a memory box for a departed pet or family member (departed includes a nanny leaving, or an older sibling going to university as well as the death of a loved one) can give a child a sense of control over the otherwise uncontrollable which evens out their fear and allows it to fade.
If none of these are likely causes, engage with your child:
- Talk to them, sitting on the floor or in some other way that gives them the sense they are in control. Listen to what they have to say and explain that you understand how they feel.
- Create a positive expectation by explaining what is going to happen and giving them a focus on when you or they will be back at home and what will happen then e.g. what’s being cooked for dinner, or what book will be read at bedtime. This gives a child evidence that the world continues past the frightening experience and moves them past it into a nicer future.
- Be consistent by keeping to routines and not adjusting plans whenever a child expresses anxiety – paradoxically, inconsistency teaches children that adults can’t be trusted, so they become more anxious!
Nanny, parents and separation anxiety
- As a parent, your job is to leave the house without provoking anxiety, so simply go to where your child is, given them a kiss and tell them when you’ll be home. Parting at the front door is often stressful, so it’s better to avoid this with very young children.
- When you get home, no matter how anxious the child has been, find something to praise them for – this may mean a quick call to nanny before you walk through the door. This way the child knows you were in touch with their day even though you weren’t present, and is a real anxiety reducer.
- Stay in control of your emotions. While your child may be stressed, they will also be watching you to see your reaction, if they feel they’ve rattled you, it may feed their anxiety behaviour.
An experienced nanny will:
- Be calm and consistent
- Learn and keep to a child’s routine
- Respect and respond to a child’s feelings with honesty, patience and tact
- Distract without tricking so that a child has a good reason to stop anxiety behaviours.
Separation anxiety is usually a short lived phenomenon, common in many babies, and in most cases will subside with common sense treatment.