How to help your child cope with separation anxiety

Making children comfortable in an environment without a parent is often the biggest hurdle when trying to get young children active.

The term used to describe children that react emotionally to the absence of their parent is separation anxiety. Some children never experience this, however, for those that do, it is a difficult and emotional situation for both parties.

It is important to alleviate the symptoms of separation anxiety because when children can operate independently, they learn how to take direction from an instructor, work within a group, and participate freely in programs. This type of learning is powerful, as it helps to build the child’s independence and confidence.

In my 15 years of experience with children, I have learned that children interact differently, and are more attentive and focused on an instructor when they are not accompanied by a parent. There are several proactive measures parents can take to help alleviate the symptoms of separation anxiety and lessen the chance of it being triggered.

Separation anxiety can be avoided proactively by engaging children, at a young age, into activities that expose them to socialization with other children. By doing this, they become comfortable in groups. Just being in a group setting consistently helps to alleviate stress.

It is also beneficial for children to spend time with other trusted people, who are giving the child experience with a variety of styles of teaching, leadership and support. Creating exposure to varied styles gives children different coping skills and practice in dealing with different people. Groups and programs like Awesome Mommies, Strong Start, co-operative preschools, and Kindergym are great ways to meet other parents with children around the same age that can interact with each other. These groups can lead to play dates and lifelong friendships that help to create a solid foundation for children to excel and be confident for the rest of their lives.

Some children, who have been exposed to group situations, still struggle in the early moments of a new experience. You can help your child succeed in a new social environment by taking proactive approaches to alleviate his or her stress:

Build familiarity and set your child’s expectations

Begin with making your child aware and comfortable with the upcoming experience. If you can contact the instructor before the program begins, over the phone or in person, it will help to create familiarity. The conversation can be a quick introduction; let the instructor ask your child what they like, this attention will have them excited about some of the upcoming activities. When you talk to the instructor, it is a good time to explain that there may be some hesitation from your child. Work together to create a plan on how you will manage your child through the situation.

Familiarize your child with the environment. If you know where the program or new experience will be happening, take your child there and let them explore. Go there often leading up to the program; if the child feels comfortable, there will be less shock when you first arrive.

Find out if they have friends in the program, if they do arrange play dates, and remind your child their friend will be there with them.

As the new experience approaches, continue to discuss the experience, and explain to your child what you have planned to help them manage their anxiety. Even if you have taken all the proactive steps, your child may still react emotionally to the new experience. In order to avoid triggering the separation anxiety, try to arrive early; having the time to adjust before a crowd arrives lessens the stress a child might feel. Being there as other children arrive also alleviates the shock of the crowd.

Learn to leave in small doses

If your child is comfortable, let them know you will be close by and go outside the door, and read a book or grab a coffee. Leaving the child is sometimes more difficult for the parent than the child. If your child resists, think of reason to leave for a moment or two, and then return. Reasons for leaving can be that you are going to pick up something in the building, or going to the washroom. You must be honest because you are building trust with your child; if you are not honest with your child, your child will feel additional stress. When you return, if your child has been well behaved or shows improvement, take a moment to acknowledge and positively reinforce this behaviour. Tell your child that they are brave, they did a great job, and you are proud of them.

A couple of small breaks, without a parent, should begin to lead to the parent not needing to be present at the program. There is no magic number, but if the parent and instructor feel that the child is comfortable in the group setting without them, the parent should go. A quick cutoff can sometimes be quite painful and shocking for the child and parent, but after a few times, the child will settle in and focus on the experience. (In the past, I have physically held children as their parents left.)

Keep open communication and learn to adapt

There has been a spectrum of reactions from children, from immediately settling into the group, to struggling for a few sessions before settling in. Keep in mind that sometimes children are just reacting to the present situation and are comfortable the moment the parent leaves. The most important thing is continually communicating with the instructor and figuring out what works for your child.

Eventually, children settle in, and they are not dependant on their parent’s company. This independence provides the child with self-confidence and focus with the program they are participating in; ultimately, providing the child with an experience that is focused on the child without the distraction of the parent. Once your child understands that you will return after one program, it will be easier for future ones. It is a life lesson that results in your child receiving the most out of the programs they participate in.

Lee Richardson loves his kids, staying active, and making a difference in the lives of children as a Sportball Franchise Partner for Victoria and Lower Mainland in British Columbia as well as Seattle, Washington. Follow Coach Lee’s adventures on his blog

3 June 2013 by