Separation Anxiety: 7 Steps To Overcoming Clingy Behavior by Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

March 15th, 2018

by Katrina Brooke

Separation anxiety bothers us. We Americans love independence and self-reliance so our child’s
clinginess seems almost un-patriotic. We also worry about how our child will handle going to school.
We might already have had difficulty with starting childcare or preschool – lots of tears and stomach
aches. And finally we do feel embarrassed and annoyed. We feel inconvenienced by our child’s neediness
and then we feel guilty that we feel inconvenienced. Our child is obviously uncomfortable. When will
this dependent, clingy, timid behavior end?
It helps to keep in mind that separation anxiety is developmental. It’s a sign of progress! Separation
anxiety usually appears first at about the time that babies learn to crawl and cruise. It’s as if they realize
that if they can move away from you, you also could move away from them. The best course, in their
minds, is to follow you around and wail. Two-year-olds are devoted to their plans for world domination
and you are the first subject of their tyranny. Toddlers would love to tell you what to do and to control
your movements. Finally, preschoolers are newly aware of danger and quite rightly believe that clinging
to your thigh is the best way to stay safe. At each point, children’s desire to keep us close reflects their
emerging abilities. This means that separation anxiety is normal.
Separation anxiety can have other causes too. Some children are just naturally slow-to-warm-up and
need more time to adjust to new situations. Some children have experienced a traumatic separation –
because of a parent’s absence or their own hospitalization – and are fearful of another disruption. And
sometimes we even teach our children to be dependent. If we or Grandma or the child’s older siblings
treat this child like a baby long after his infant days are past, then we inadvertently support anxious
clinging. Kids act the way they think we want them to act and they are quick to pick up on the signals
that we’re afraid for their safety and anxiously want to keep them close.
Separation anxiety can take many forms. Of course the child who hides behind you and refuses to go to
preschool can be said to have separation anxiety. But we can also include the child who won’t go to bed
by herself. We can include the child who favors one parent over the other. Separation anxiety may be
behind a child’s refusal to participate along with other kids, preferring to stand on the sidelines with you,
and also behind a child’s insistence that a best friend or sibling go along to every event. These are all
instances of a reluctance to be on one’s own or to let another person step away. So what can you do
about these behaviors?
Here are seven general principles to keep in mind:
1. Understand what can be changed and what can’t. If your child has always been slow-towarm-up
to new things, even as an infant, and if you’ve come to the conclusion that this is just
how your child is, then you can’t change this child into a social butterfly or an intrepid
adventurer. Don’t frustrate yourself and drive your child crazy by trying to make him into a
person he’s not.
2. Take your child’s age into consideration. Is it possible that this is “just a stage”? Are you
concerned about behavior that started recently? See if things settle out on their own in a
couple weeks. If a sudden clinginess is related to developmental growth, it is likely just a bump in
the road.
3. Avoid creating an expectation for anxiety. Do you unconsciously shield your child from a
person who stops to talk? Do you automatically pull your child closer when he’s confronted by
a new situation? Try to notice the ways you signal your own nervousness. Quit asking your child
if he’s all right and implying that, given some danger you alone can see, you think he should not
be.
4. Focus on one behavior at a time. Maybe your child screams when you leave her at
childcare and insists that only her dad can get her dressed and won’t sleep in her own bed and
on and on and on. She’s limiting herself in so many ways and you’d like to wave a magic wand
and have it all be better. It’s actually easier to tackle one issue at a time. Start with the simplest
to fix or the most annoying and build her trust and self-confidence gradually.
5. Be understanding and supportive without shaming or enabling. Understanding is saying,
”I know this is hard for you and…” Being supportive is saying, “I’ll be right here. When you get
over there, wave at me and I’ll wave back.” Avoiding shaming means you never say, “Don’t be a
baby” or “Come on. Be a big boy.” Avoiding enabling means not saying, “That’s okay. I’ll say it
for you.” Communicate your unconditional support without communicating that you think
your child will be a failure.
6. Provide frequent opportunities for practice. When your child finds speaking up or doing
something on his own scary it’s natural to want to protect him from that. But he needs more
opportunities, not fewer. Instead of sheltering your child, make sure he gets around and has
plenty of casual interactions and informal low-stakes challenges. Each attempt is progress.
7. Notice when your own discomfort is the source of your annoyance. If you find yourself
getting impatient with your child’s separation issues, take a moment to figure out why. Are you
annoyed because you feel like your child is letting you down or embarrassing you? Are you
unhappy to be so depended-upon? Remember to separate your own feelings from your child’s
needs. Try to make this about the situation, not about the child or about yourself.
Seven steps. They boil down to this: Try to keep separation anxiety in perspective. Stop and think in
your most kindly but expectant way.
Your child needs your support in learning how to step out confidently on her own.
© 2018, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. Find out more at www.theskillfulteacher.org
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