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Separation Anxiety Strategies: How to Make Goodbyes Easier for Children

Separation Anxiety Strategies

We know how tough it can be to say goodbye to your little one, especially when they’re going through a phase of separation anxiety. The tears, the clinginess, the tiny arms wrapped around your leg – it can break any parent’s heart.  Plus, it can feel like a rough start to any therapy session or classroom drop off too.

If you’re dealing with a child who’s struggling with separation anxiety, you’re not alone. It’s a common part of childhood development, but that doesn’t make it any easier.  Separation anxiety is a normal stage of emotional development that typically begins around eight months of age and can last until a child is two or three years old. It occurs when a child feels distressed due to the absence or expected absence of their primary caregiver, often resulting in tears, clinginess, and even tantrums. 

While it’s a normal part of development, it can certainly be tough on both kids and parents alike.  From a mental health perspective, it’s also a normal part of caregiver-infant interactions and can be an indicator of attachment patterns.  It shows the strong emotional bond you share.  

In early intervention settings,  separation anxiety can occur at first time visits or with an unfamiliar therapist.  Children may also have a difficult time upon being dropped off for school or to say goodbye upon entering the classroom.

Therapists, teachers and parents can work together to help kids clients learn to transition and make their goodbyes go as smoothly as possible.Talking about it in advance and collaborating to make a plan at drop off is a great team approach to help kids handle separation anxiety in a healthy way. 

Here are some tips for therapists to help ensure a great start to therapy sessions.

Pro Tips for Occupational Therapists:  How to structure therapy sessions to ease separation anxiety

Kids often have no trouble transitioning to OT sessions because they know how fun therapy can be.  However, some children are slower to warm up so here are some simple ways to help ease a child’s separation anxiety.

      • Make therapy sessions fun and engaging!  

      • Be sure to give a warm greeting to establish a positive first impression.  It’s essential for making the child (and caregiver) feel welcomed and valued. This can be as simple as a big smile, a cheerful “Hello!”, or a special handshake.

      • Following a consistent routine at the start and end of each session provides predictability, which can be comforting for children with separation anxiety.  For example, the start of the session could include a fun ice-breaker activity or a favorite game, while the end could conclude with a favorite song or a special sticker.  Upon ending the session, you can also mention what there is to look forward to the next session such as a favorite game or activity.  (Be sure to write it down someplace in your notes so you actually do remember to follow through!)

    These routines not only make the sessions more enjoyable but also provide a sense of structure and familiarity, which can help the child feel more secure and at ease during the separation from their parent or caregiver. You can also help coach parents through difficult goodbyes by suggesting the following strategies.

    Pro Tips for Parents: 7 Strategies to help Ease the Process of Saying Goodbye:

      1.  Practice Short Goodbyes: Start with short separations to help your child adjust. For example, you might play a quick game of peek-a-boo, where your child learns that even when you’re out of sight, you come back.

      1.  Keep Goodbyes Consistent and Positive: Establish a cheerful goodbye ritual. You could create a special handshake or a kiss blown from the door. This creates a positive association and gives your child something to look forward to.

      1.  Bring a Comfort Object: Allow your child to keep a familiar and comforting item with them. This could be a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, or even a piece of your clothing. It serves as a comforting reminder of you.

      1.  Use a Reliable Caregiver: When possible, have a consistent caregiver whom your child knows and trusts. Familiarity can provide comfort.

      1.  Don’t Sneak Away: While it might be tempting to sneak away when your child is not looking, it’s better to say a proper goodbye. Sneaking away can cause more distress because the child doesn’t know where you’ve gone. 

      1. Praise Your Child: When you return, praise your child for their bravery. This positive reinforcement will encourage them to handle separations more confidently in the future.

      1. Talk About Your Return: Before you leave, explain to your child where you are going and that you will be back. You might say, “Mommy is going to the store, but I’ll be back in time for lunch.” This helps them understand that you will return.

    Remember, patience and consistency are key. Separation anxiety is a normal phase, and with support and understanding, it’s something both you, your child and therapist can navigate successfully.

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