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How to manage Separation Anxiety


Written by:

Emily Chin


Separation anxiety is a normal and common child fear. Children’s survival instincts are believed to be hard-wired to react when separated from their family. The level of ‘normal anxiety’ however differs between individuals. This can depend on the child’s temperament and how responsive their carers have been to their comfort and closeness.

Separation anxiety disorder however, can occur later in childhood and impacts the child’s ability to function. This results in the child being too distressed and impaired for the situation and is therefore a disorder.


The DSMIV, a diagnostic classification system used by psychiatrists, defines the disorder as ‘developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety concerning separation from home or from main caregivers’.


If 3 or more of these symptoms last for at least 4 weeks, the child could be considered to have separation anxiety disorder:

Frequent excessive distress when separated from their home

Excessive and frequent concern about losing guardians or guardians being harmed

Frequent and extreme worry towards an unlikely event that would lead to separation from a guardian (e.g. getting kidnapped or getting lost)

Frequent reluctance or refusal to attend something due to separation

Extreme fear or reluctance to be without guardians

Refusal or reluctance associated with sleeping without a guardian near or away from home

Frequent nightmares involving separation themes

Frequent symptoms of headaches, nausea, stomach aches, vomiting etc when separation from guardians is anticipated


How to deal with Separation Anxiety in Children

1. Familiarise the child with the environment When leaving the child in a new setting, spend some time together to familiarise the child with the new environment

2. Keep routines Try not to change routines to cater for their anxiety as much as possible, as avoiding separation can reinforce anxiety

3. Bring something homely Let the child bring something from home like a toy or blanket. These help the child feel safe in a new environment

4. Ask for extra support Inform the service the child attends of the separation anxiety so the child can receive more support

5. Discuss their fears Talk openly and in a non-judgemental manner with your child about their fears

6. Be encouraging Encourage separation and practice situations where separation occurs

7. Keep goodbyes brief Say goodbye briefly with a happy expression and when you will return

8. Allow them to settle Settle the child into a fun activity before you leave

9. Boost confidence Aim to raise your child’s esteem and confidence through hobbies, interests and compliments


If the child’s anxiety is severe and impacts your daily life, see your local GP, practitioner or child psychologist. They will be able to diagnose this disorder and determine any possible causes along with the best treatment for the child.

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