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Separation Anxiety: When Does It Become A Problem?

2012 April 25
by nannyjob

The thought of hiring a nanny for the first time can be a daunting one for any parent. Mixed with the added concern about whether or not your child will take well to the nanny (and vice-versa!), the last thing you might consider is whether or not your little one is actually ok with you leaving for work each day – a situation that is probably totally new to them.

You and your child may both experience an element of separation anxiety as and when you return to work, which if course is entirely natural. If, however, you are worried about the level of anxiety your child is experiencing, or if this continues for longer than you think is natural for your child, it may be time to look further into how you and your nanny can help ease the situation.

What is child separation anxiety?

This is a normal part of child development, and can occur from as young as 8months. As the child gets older, it should fade away. Sometimes, however, a child’s fear about separation seems resurface from nowhere after time, or to build up more as time passes. If anxieties are prominent enough to get in the way of school or other activities, this can be a sign that a child has a separation anxiety disorder, and you may want to call on the help of a professional. There are also lots of things that as a parent or a nanny you can do to help.

Some common symptoms of separation anxiety becoming a disorder:

  • Complaints from the child of feeling physically ill, such as tummy ache or head ache upon separation or just before.
  • An irrational fear that something terrible may happen to a loved one whilst separated from them.
  • Nightmares about separation from loved ones.
  • Fear of going to school or nursery, or a straight refusal of doing so.
  • Reluctance to go to sleep, for fear of being alone.

Why might my child have a separation anxiety disorder?

Getting to the bottom of the reasons behind a child’s separation anxiety disorder makes you much more likely to help them. The following are common reasons that your child may be experiencing this:

  • Your anxieties. Parent’s own insecurities and anxieties about separation from the child are felt by your child more than you may think, and it is possible that the child is feeding from them, and learning part of this behaviour from you. Don’t panic if this rings true with you – as soon as you act in a more relaxed way around your child, they should begin to respond.
  • A change in normal routine – this is likely to be the case if you have recently introduced a nanny and are going back to work.
  • Any recent stressful situations – this might include moving house, a new sibling being born, falling out with a best friend, or the loss of a beloved pet.

Dealing with child separation anxiety disorder – Tips for parents:

  • Let your child get to know a new caregiver first. If you need to leave your child with a new nanny who they do not know, give them a chance to get to know each other while you’re still around, so they feel safe.
  • Create a positive spin. Reassuring your child that mummy and daddy are going away for a little while, but will always be home in a matter of hours, helps to give them something positive to focus on when you leave.
  • Talk it through. Getting down to your child’s physical level, listening to what they say and explaining that you understand how they are feeling can really help. Just as much as adults, children pick up on when someone is trying to understand them, and are likely to feel comforted by this.
  • Leave without fuss. Instead of reacting to your child’s anxiety by making a fanfare when you leave the house, kiss them goodbye, tell them that you will be back within a matter of hours and go.
  • Set boundaries. Make sure your child knows that although you understand how they are feeling and are trying to help, there are also rules that need to be followed.
  • Give praise. Make sure that any accomplishments, even seemingly small ones like eating all of their dinner, is praised, to help the child feel good about themselves as often as possible.

Dealing with child separation anxiety disorder – Tips for nannies:

  • Consistency. If you feel that a child you are looking after may have a separation anxiety disorder, try to ease them in to being in your care by continuing as much as possible with any routines they had before. The child is far less likely to feel that things are totally different without mummy or daddy there.
  • Listen.  It’s vital to build a sense of trust up with the child, and making them feel that you want to listen to how they feel and understand them will help them to open up and feel at ease with you.
  • No distractions. If a child is distressed after a parent has left for the day, explain calmly that you are there to talk to them about their feelings, and give them time to come round, instead of distracting them with something else. The child is more likely to trust you and feel in control of the situation.
  • Give praise. Just like with parents, children will benefit by feeling a sense of achievement and being praised for any accomplishments.
  • Stay in control, calm and firm. Make sure the child is aware that you are the boss for the time their parents are away. The separation from their main authority figure is enough for a child with severe separation anxiety, without them feeling as though there is no authority there for them at all.

If you feel that a child is suffering from a case of separation anxiety disorder, and the above tips are not enough to help, it’s best to refer to a GP who can offer further advice.


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