What is a typical separation fear?
Nearly all children between 6 months and 3 years old get clingy and cry if their caregivers leave them, even for a short time. Young babies don't understand time, so they think a parent who walks out of the room is gone forever. Babies can become anxious and fearful when a parent leaves their sight. This stage typically ends by 3 years of age. Young children may also:
- Have trouble being handed by their caregiver to another adult when being held.
- Have problems saying goodbye to a caregiver at school drop-off.
When should I be concerned about a student’s separation fears?
Some fear of being apart from a caregiver is typical even for older children but they are able to separate when treated with minimal emotional and social support. Signs that a child may be experiencing excessive separation fears include:
For younger students:
- Refusing to go to kindergarten/school to not be apart from a caregiver.
- Crying or tantruming when caregiver leaves the classroom or the school.
- Clinging or crying in new situations.
- Physical symptoms, such as headaches, bellyache, vomiting, when separating from care figures.
For older students:
- Fear that something bad will happen to a family member while at school.
- Overwhelming need to know where caregivers are during the school day, and needing to be in touch with them by phone or texting.
- Frequent stomach aches, headaches, or other body aches.
- Refusing to go to school, leading to academic problems and/or social isolation.
What can I do to help a student with excessive separation fears?
If a young student is experiencing excessive separation fears, it is likely that the child’s caregiver is already aware of the situation. Teachers can help to support separation for caregivers in several ways:
- Encourage caregivers to use a quick “goodbye.” When caregivers make a big deal or stall during a departure, it is often because they fear the child might have trouble being away from them. However, when departures are lengthy, the child may feed off of the caregiver’s hesitation to leave. It is important for caregivers to establish a “goodbye routine” that is quick and effective.
- Gently implement the separation process. Separation is a process that should be introduced gently and incrementally. Caregivers may practice leaving the child with the teacher while staying nearby for a short time, gradually moving up to longer periods.
- Have preferred activities ready. Teachers can help students to separate from their caregivers by preparing the classroom with a preferred activity.
- Give the student a special job to do. Being a classroom helper is a big deal. Some students with excessive separation fears are able to overcome them if they have an important job to do.
Excessive separation fears in older students are more challenging and teachers should not attempt to manage them independently. If an older student is experiencing separation fears, bring them to the attention of his or her caregivers, as well as to the attention of the school’s mental health professional.
The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).
Fear of being apart that is too frequent, intense, present in many different contexts, discrepant from those experienced by children the same age, and that negatively interferes with classroom daily activities, may indicate the possibility of Separation Anxiety Disorder.
Where to find more information
Specific, detailed, and clinical information on Separation Anxiety Disorder can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].
If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.
You can also find more information by pointing your phone camera at the QR code below or by clicking here.