Separation anxiety in 5 to 8 year olds (2/22/18)

Recently, several Tenacre parents of children in the 5 to 8 year old stage asked me to address shared concerns they have about their children’s behavior. Thanks to them for doing so. It seems their kids are needing to stay close to mom or dad’s side, following closely when parents leave a room, or not being able to be upstairs alone, or balking at bedtime or at school drop off. All of these behaviors sound like variations on separation anxiety, a topic we have looked at before but well worth revisiting, given how common it is in this age cohort and how important it is to kids to have someone attend to and help soothe it.

Let’s start with the developmental issues at work in separation anxiety. In the years 5 to 8, a dramatic neurological growth spurt occurs, taking the child from the magical thinking of the earlier years to a much fuller, more realistic grasp of the breadth and depth of the larger world and his/her place in it. That shift alone can often mean kids this age are beginning to confront some scary stuff, like their separateness and aloneness, theirs and others’ vulnerabilities, random unfairness, and, indeed, mortality itself. These matters are not usually fully conscious in kids this age, but they are at least inchoate in the expanding mind.

Add to this developmental shift some stressor, nuanced or otherwise, which activates increased vigilance for the dangers afoot in the larger world. Most obvious would be illness or death in the family or immediate social circle, rising conflicts among family members or peers, or changes in domicile, family fortunes and other sources of stability. Less obvious would be events in the culture at large. It is quite hard to know how much young children are affected by societal ills, most prominently, for example, the ongoing drumbeat of school shootings; and we as adults have to be careful not to project our own upset about such tragic events onto our children. But certainly the way news is reported these days, loudly and relentlessly, it is harder to shield our kids from it. Nor should we entirely.

It is good to limit news exposure for young ones. At the same time, we need to keep in mind a range of possible triggers, including social problems, and be willing to talk about them in an age appropriate way, as we inquire into signs of possible anxiety like separation difficulties. So, for example: “You seem to be nervous about going to bed. Is something wrong?” Often kids will not be able to give anything beyond the most concrete response. “It’s too dark in here.” Consider inquiring further. “What don’t you like about the dark?” Some kids will be able to go further on their own. “Is Nana going to die?” Or you could prompt further discussion with a gently guess. “I wonder if you’re worried about Nana?” You can then offer realistic reassurance without sugar coating the issue at hand. “Nana is sick, but we have really good doctors helping us.” Above all, you can be ongoingly available and nurturant during times of your child’s stress, all while carrying on with normal life and routines.

Most of the separation anxieties of this age group are transient. But the bigger world issues these kids are now equipped to comprehend are not. Early, caring attention to children’s fears can help them internalize an enduring capacity to face, often overcome, and/or accept those fears. To be alive includes being at times afraid. The best antidote is loving connection.
Tenacre nurtures and challenges each child, every day.