Monday 19 March 2018

Family Life: How can I help my five-year-old girl through separation anxiety?

David Coleman

David Coleman

Q We have three children – two girls and a boy, aged six, five and one. We think our five-year old daughter is still going through separation anxiety – from me, her mother.

She has always been very attached to me and becomes anxious at the thought of not being close to me or not being able to get close to me. She cries every day going into school (junior infants). She gets upset going to play at a friend’s house,or if I am leaving her with a sitter. When I ask her why she is crying she always says she is going to “miss me”.

I always try to reassure her and explain that there is nothing to worry about, that she'll be fine and have lots of fun and that I will be back very soon. I reassure herabout school and what to expect.

I always tell her in advance when we have plans to go out so that it's not a big surprise and unsettling. But she still cries and says she will miss me and wants me to stay.

She seems to be an anxious child and at times adverse to change (even new clothes can be upsetting if it means th old ones going) but I don't want her to be this way and want to help her get over this. I am concerned that at age five she should have grown out of this separation anxiety and perhaps we are not handling it properly, perhaps saying and doing the wrong things and thereby making things worse.

Is there anything we can do to help her overcome this?

A It is difficult to see our children so regularly upset. It really tugs at our heartstrings. I am sure that you feel some of the good is gone from a night out if you have had to cope with all of the drama and upset before you leave.

Your daughter is not unusual in continuing to be upset at separations from you. It sounds, however, like you are becoming a little frustrated by the ongoing distress.

Your daughter is probably trying to give you a behavioural message, every time that you are leaving her, that she will miss you. Sometimes she can verbalise this, but mostly she just shows you with her tears.

Your job is to try to translate this behaviour each time. This requires you to empathise with your daughter and let her know that you understand how much she will miss you.

Before you can reassure her that she will be fine, you first need to show her that you realise how upset she is. So, when you are dropping her to school say something like: "You look really upset that I am going. I bet you will miss me lots when I am gone. Isn't it great that you will have so much fun with your friends that after a while you mightn't miss me as much? It's always hard to say goodbye, but it will be fun to say hello again later."

This kind of interaction is warm, understanding and reassuring. Your interactions, from what you describe, sound like they are warm and reassuring, but they may be missing the 'understanding' element.

In many ways her separation anxiety and her anxiety about change are one and the same issue. She just seems to find it hard to make transitions from situations in which she feels comfortable into different situations. Try to acknowledge her anxiety about change every time she is faced with change.

Once you have let her know that you understand how difficult she is finding a change then you can demonstrate to her how well able to cope with similar change she has been in the past.

So, an example of this might be: "You don't look too pleased with your new jumper. I think you really like wearing your old green one. Do you remember how you hated the green one at first because you loved your small red one? Once you get used to a new jumper you usually end up loving it."

It can also be helpful for children who experience lots of separation anxiety to be reassured about the length of the anticipated separation and also to have some way of measuring the time passing.

Five-year-olds usually need concrete indicators such as the timing of events, like "I'll be home at dinner time" or "after your story time in school the day will be over and I will be outside to collect you."

The other thing that can be really helpful is for the child to have some object (called a transitional object) that they can carry with them. Some children naturally have a 'blankie' or a favourite stuffed toy that they use to comfort themselves.

You and your daughter could go looking for a pair of shells at a beach, or two nice stones. You can each carry one of them in a pocket (or school bag) and hold it if you want to be reminded or reassured about your connection to the other person.

Most importantly, however, I think that if you can remain warm, understanding and reassuring for your daughter then this stage of significant anxiety will pass.

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