Dear David Coleman: Our daughter got lost and now seems really anxious
Q: Since late February, our five-year-old daughter, who has always been a bubbly, confident girl, has started getting very anxious when left alone in a room. When her teacher leaves the classroom and she can't see her, she starts crying quite dramatically. She gets anxious every morning as we approach the school and clings on to us. Around the same time this started, there were a few times where she had lost sight of us while in the playground or at an event and got very upset, believing she was completely lost or abandoned. Do we need to bring her to see a child psychologist or is it a phase that she will grow out of?
A: In answer to your direct question, no you may not need to bring her to a psychologist, but equally, it may not be a phase that she will grow out of without some adult support. While these two statements may seem contradictory, let me try to give you some context and further explanation.
Separation anxiety is common and is a phase that some children will go through during key transitional times in their lives. Going to primary school for the first time is one such example. "Homesickness" in older children can also be considered separation anxiety. Such typical separation anxiety just requires warmth and emotional understanding from both the parents and the person "standing in" as carer (like the teacher, or host mother if it is an exchange).
In your specific situation, it seems like your daughter had been confident and able to cope with being separate from you and her dad. This only changed after she had several experiences of "getting lost". When a child gets lost, it can be entirely emotionally overwhelming for them. I think your choice of the word "abandoned" to describe your daughter's experience is probably accurate. She may have been used to straying from you, safe in the knowledge that you are always close by so that she can return to you for a "top up" of security.
If, on return for a top up, the child discovers that their secure base is gone, it can be massively anxiety-provoking for them. They don't know that it is a temporary loss, and so, it can be overwhelming. Thankfully for most children, they are "lost" for a very short time. But even one very short experience of being lost can rock their previous confidence about being away from their parent. In your daughter's case, it sounds like she has had at least three such experiences in a very short space of time.
I think it is unsurprising, therefore, that she now displays so much separation anxiety. Resolving this, for her, requires a lot of emotional support from you and her dad. Even in times when she is not anxious, it will help her if you can create lots of "nurture" moments. So that might mean offering some random cuddles, focused one-to-one play time, or story time with her, snuggle time at bedtime, and so on. It will also help her if you can keep an eye on her environment and try to ensure you avoid any situations that are over-challenging for her.
You might also want to tap into those experiences of being lost, by revisiting them ('Do you remember the time when…') to help her process them. As you recall the experience, connect into the kinds of worried or terrified feelings she may have had, and reassure her that you were looking hard for her because you guessed that she may have been missing you. This acknowledges that the experience was stressful, but that it was always going to turn out okay. You will also need to offer lots of empathy to her about her experience of any kind of separation now.