Psychologist helps parents understand separation anxiety, clinging behavior, and how they can be alleviated.
When a child clings or repeatedly expresses fear or refusal in separating from parents, there are ways to intervene to improve the situation.
It is important to first consider if your child has a psychological disorder. Extreme and recurrent behaviors or pre-occupations with separating that persist for 4+ weeks and interfere with the child’s functioning may indicate a separation anxiety disorder or related problem. If this is suspected, it is important to have the child evaluated by a psychologist.
If the behavior is not extreme nor impairing but is consistent or persistent enough to be troubling, it is likely not a full fledged disorder. Nonetheless, it warrants attention and intervention to make life more pleasant for parents and child.
Discover if separation, clinging, related sadness or fear occurs in more than one place. Is it something restricted to daycare, school, or summer camp? If it is limited to one environment, it is possible that something problematic has evolved. Perhaps a close friend has found another playmate.
It is common for children to suddenly express dislike or fear of school or camp when there has been a shift in the child’s social interactions. This can be investigated by talking to child care personnel, teachers, or counsellors.
Parents can also intervene directly in the following ways:
In addition to being compassionate, it is important to identify the reasons for a child’s clinging or fears of separation. Something in the child’s social world may have changed. Children are sensitive to their surroundings and often respond in unusual ways.
A new job for mom or dad or any new stressors that affect home or routine can all de-stabilize a child. Anything that places more stress on mom or dad is likely contributing to the child’s general anxiety that may surface at times of separation.
To help a child deal with life transitions, it is important to discuss them, define new expectations or routines, and verbalize kids’ feelings that are normal under the circumstances. Voicing and validating a child’s sadness or fears helps them feel understood, normal, and accepted. That alone alleviates pressure and re-connects parent and child. Making the child feel loved, safe, and worthy can help them grow naturally out of their fears of separation.