Separation anxiety is 'actually sign of a positive attachment,' experts say. Here's how parents can help kids cope with their feelings

Jennifer Butler-Sweeny, a mental health counselor, says separation anxiety is "actually sign of a positive attachment to one's caregivers and evidence of a parent-child bond."
Jennifer Butler-Sweeny, a mental health counselor, says separation anxiety is "actually sign of a positive attachment to one's caregivers and evidence of a parent-child bond."

A typical morning for Jillian Grover would not be complete without a flood of inquiries from her 10-year-old son, Camden, who has been showing symptoms of separation anxiety on and off since he was a baby.

"Every morning there are a lot of questions," Grover tells Yahoo Life. "Will I be alright? Will I remember to pick him up from school at the end of the day? He's always worried something will happen to me when we're not together."

Grover, a mom of three, says her son's anxiety about being separated from her has always been part of their family's daily life on some level. In recent years, however, Camden's symptoms of separation anxiety have increased due to uncertainty surrounding the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety, a disorder in which a person experiences strong feelings of panic and fear over being separated from another person, is most common in children. Since the coronavirus crisis, Grover says Camden's struggles have increased: It's a challenge for him to do things on his own, without Mom by his side.

Grover, who lives in Elmira Heights, N.Y., says daily activities like going to school or visiting a friend's house have proven increasingly difficult for her son. During his periods of anxiety, Camden worries not for himself, but for his mother while they are apart.

His main worry is that she will be in danger, and he won't be near to help.

"At first, it was jarring," admits Grover. "I wondered, 'Why is he being so clingy with me?'"

Grover says in talking to Camden about his behavior, she found he was unsure why he was feeling the way he was and didn't realize he was showing symptoms of separation anxiety.

"He would have huge panic attacks because he didn't know how to express these feelings to me," Grover shares. "It's helped a lot to have a dialogue, to let him have a space to talk and to let him know he won't get in trouble."

When it came to giving Camden the tools needed to ease his separation anxiety, Grover found building a safe space to talk about his feelings was most important. She recalls sitting down with her son one evening, openly asking how he was feeling and addressing the changes in his behavior. Grover reassured Camden he could be open with her and that she was there to help him to feel better.

Since that first conversation, Camden and his mom are taking daily steps to ease his anxiety.

"It's all about preparing him for what will happen next," said Grover, "He doesn't like to be surprised by separation, so I try to prepare him for time apart [from me] as far in advance as possible."

"If we go somewhere, he wants to know what to expect," she adds. "He hates surprises, [so we] talk things out and I make sure I answer all his questions, which helps to calm him a bit."

When should parents seek help?

Jennifer Butler-Sweeny, a practicing psychologist and co-owner of A New Horizon Counseling Center in Parsippany, N.J., has worked with many children who have anxiety disorders.

Butler-Sweeny says separation anxiety is a fairly common behavioral pattern in children.

"Some signs of [separation anxiety] are observable to a certain degree such as crying and escalating emotions, but others are more internal, such as sleep or appetite disruption," she explains. "The child is feeling a level of anxiety due to what's perceived as uncontrollable abandonment."

Because the type of care an individual child needs differs based on the severity of their symptoms, Butler-Sweeny says it's important parents recognize the difference between a moment of separation anxiety and separation anxiety that has become a clinical anxiety disorder.

In a typical moment of separation anxiety — fleeting tears or worry over a parent leaving — Butler-Sweeny says an important tip for parents is to recognize their child's behavior as normal and not overreact.

"It's actually a sign of a positive attachment to one's caregivers and evidence of a parent-child bond," she says.

In these cases, parents should remain calm, remind their child they have nothing to worry about and assure the child that they will come back.

In comparison, a child experiencing a separation anxiety disorder will showcase additional symptoms, such as mood irritability, lack of interest in trying new things, changes in their appetite and sleep patterns and excessive worry or panic-like symptoms, such as heavy breathing or sweating. Even with support, after the initial separation, these children will remain unable to move onto other activities or tasks and will stay hyper-focused on the separation.

If a child presents symptoms like these on a regular basis, Butler-Sweeny says it's important to recognize their struggle and begin the journey to finding the tools that will help them ease their anxiety.

Finding the right therapist

Parents' first step should be to reach out to their child's pediatrician, who can recommend a child psychiatrist or psychologist to help.

"A tip for supporting kids in therapy is to allow them to truly get to know the therapist," Butler-Sweeny suggests. "Even with a young child, the therapist really needs to develop a rapport without the parents' constant involvement: parents need to trust that [the therapist] will share all relevant information pertaining to their child's safety and mental health with them later."

Still, it may take several appointments to find a therapist who's a good fit.

Jillian Grover with her 10-year-old son, Camden, who struggles with separation anxiety. (Photo: Jillian Grover)
Jillian Grover with her 10-year-old son, Camden, who struggles with separation anxiety. (Photo: Jillian Grover)

Grover shares Camden's first therapist wasn't a good match, as she noticed her son's anxiety getting worse, not better, after sessions. Grover stayed persistent and found a new therapist who Camden was more comfortable with. Today, Camden's therapist has introduced him to many tools that help him manage his anxiety, including tapping, a technique also referred to as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).

Tapping and separation anxiety

According to Grover, tapping is a silent form of reassurance Camden can give himself, even when he and his mom are apart. Each day, he repeats affirmations and taps on different parts of his body, like his chest or his hand, repeating phrases like, "I am safe," "My mom is safe," or, "I will see my mom again soon." Later, when he is alone, he can remember these words by silently tapping on the same parts of his body.

Katie Nall is a certified EFT practitioner from Florida who describes the technique as "a noninvasive, non addictive, self-administered, somatic method for dissolving worries, anxiety, fear, frustration, lethargy, exhaustion and stress."

"The technique can be used by adults and children alike," Nall explains. "It consists of tapping on different points and stating negative emotions. Children can either tap on themselves or stuffed animals, or with parental permission, have others tap on them."

While traditional EFT focuses on the repetition and release of negative feelings, Nall says non-traditional methods like the ones Camden uses, where he repeats a positive mantra instead, can also work.

"Positive statements are acceptable," she says, "but not as effective as we don't usually want to release positive emotions."

Above all, Nall says EFT is about addressing the body's response to stressful situations like experiencing uncertainty, a lack of information or a loss of control.

"A child experiencing separation anxiety is probably going to experience all three of those triggers," Nall explains. "Helping the child regain control of their emotions through tapping can be a game changer for all."

Grover also shares that when he remembers to do it, taking deep breaths when he feels an anxiety attack coming on has been a big help for Camden.

How to support an anxious child

Although Camden continues to improve, Grover openly shares her experience for other parents or families who may be experiencing struggles with separation anxiety.

"This journey is hard," she says. "I would love to just be able to go out with my husband on a date or even to the store real quick, but there's a lot of prep I have to do. It takes time — sometimes weeks or days — to prepare Camden for an event. Mostly he is always with me, because if I don't prepare ahead of time, then it's not happening."

Grover's advice to other parents? Be patient and know when to ask for help.

"Camden's therapist has helped a lot — giving him someone else to talk to about it has helped him cope a little better," says Grover. "And, having patience and understanding that your child can't control these feelings and anxieties is the biggest piece of advice I would give. Hold your child during an attack and just let them know you're there for them."