Separation Anxiety from Diana Bigham

7 Feb

Separation Anxiety

A Guest Post from Diana Bigham


Are you the parent who is always running late to work because you had difficulty dropping your child off at daycare or school because they were clingy?

Can you leave the room without your child crying or throwing a tantrum?

Do you ever feel exhausted because your child seems attached to your hip or cannot sleep in their room at night?

Your child may suffer from separation anxiety.


At around 6-9 months, babies begin to realize that something, or someone, can exist even though the object or the person is hidden from their view. This is referred to as object permanence, which why separation anxiety can emerge at this stage. Separation anxiety occurs when an infant or toddler is mildly distressed or clingy when separated from the primary caregiver. This typically occurs when being dropped off at daycare or first going to school. Though this is a normal part of childhood for young children under age 4, there are instances in which separation anxiety can be excessive and require more attention.

Definition and Symptoms

Separation anxiety is not considered a “disorder” until it is determined to be what we call “clinically significant.” Separation Anxiety Disorder is an excessive anxiety concerning separation from those to whom the child is attached, and is developmentally inappropriate for the child’s age.

There can be a persistent and excessive amount of worry and fearfulness when separated from home or major attachment figures, or upon anticipation of separation.

Other symptoms may include:

  • Losing major attachment figures
  • Reluctance or refusal to go to school or elsewhere because of fear of separation
  • Reluctance to sleep without being near the primary attachment figure
  • Repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation
  • Repeated complaints of physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or vomiting).

The symptoms are severe enough that they must last at least 4 weeks to be considered a disorder. You can see how this problem can quickly cause a significant amount of issues, such as a child or adolescent refusing to go to school, not socializing with peers, or avoiding participation in sports or recreation.


There are a number of ways adults can intervene to reduce the amount of anxiety the child suffers. Below are some helpful strategies.

  1. Help your child identify the circumstances that cause their anxiety. A child’s ability to tolerate separations should gradually increase over time when he or she is gradually exposed to the feared events. Encourage your child to feel competent and empowered, as well as be able to discuss his or her feelings associated with uncomfortable events to prevent anxiety.
  2. Model or role-play with your child so that he or she understands that there is still safe when in the presence of other responsible adults, such as babysitters or teachers. Gradual exposure to new settings can be helpful too, such as attending a new school. Begin with the child being in the most control. For example, when the child is introduced to a new school setting, the parent can bring the child to meet the teacher, have pictures of the school campus to be familiar with the new setting, and even discuss what a typical school day would be like.
  3. Keep routines as normal as possible. Predictability reduces anxiety and a sense of uncertainty.
  4. Practice relaxation exercises like deep breathing through the use of bubble breaths. You can make it a game to see who can blow the biggest bubble, which is basically teaching your child diaphragmatic breathing.
  5. Incorporate positive reinforcement for independent functioning. For example, praise your child for being able to walk alone to his or her own classroom.
  6. Determine if other factors discourage the child from returning to age appropriate behaviors, such as family stressors. Does the caregiver become anxious when the child is expected to participate in the new setting? Children are very bright and can pick up on their own caregiver’s anxiety levels and may think, “If mom is worried, then there must be something about this situation to be worried about.” Be aware of your own feelings and be intentional about communicating a sense of safety and confidence about separations.
  7. Be patient and comforting. It’s important to tolerate your child’s emotions so that he or she feels safe to share with you what his or her fears are. Your expectations should also progress at a pace that does not increase your child’s anxiety.
  8. Read The Kissing Hand. This is a precious book that describes a raccoon child’s first day of school and how the mom raccoon is reassures him. Some people have even made activities to play with their children after reading this book, such as baking cookies in the
  9. WARNING: Side effects following some of these tips can include: restful nights, reduction of bags under your eyes, punctuality at work, and pleasure knowing that you are raising a more independent child.

Diana Bigham, LMFT-S, RPT-S

Diana Bigham is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) and a Registered Play Therapist (RPT). She is a Board Approved Supervisor for LMFT in the state of Texas and a current supervisor candidate for AAMFT. In addition, she is a Registered Play Therapist Supervisor, credentialed by APT.  She has received training from the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children.  Diana also teaches Intro to Psychology as an Adjunct for the Psychology Department at Hardin-Simmons University.

She is a clinical member of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy and the Association for Play Therapy. Diana received her Master’s in Arts in Family Psychology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, TX. Diana is certified in providing premarital counseling and assessment with PREPARE/ENRICH. She also offers workshops for professionals and organizations.

Diana is a Christian counselor, but works with all people regardless of their faith. Her practice largely consists of treating individuals and families with young children. For those families seeking therapy for children younger than 3, Diana will offer guidance and help to the guardians with parenting concerns. The parent-child relationship is central to social and emotional development and well-being, therefore, Diana requires parental involvement in child therapy.

Although she works with individuals and couples, her areas of special interest include: Play Therapy, Family and Relationship Problems, Abuse and Trauma Related Issues, Mood (such as Depression) and Anxiety Disorders, Parenting Concerns, and Pre-Marital Counseling.


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