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Separation Anxiety & Parenting Time

anxious child

Understanding Separation Anxiety in Children

Separation anxiety is a common developmental stage where children experience fear or distress when separated from their primary caregivers. It typically arises around eight or nine months old, when toddlers begin to understand object permanence – the concept that things still exist even when they can't be seen. This newfound awareness can lead to anxiety when their safe haven (usually a parent) disappears.

While separation anxiety usually peaks around age one and lessens by age three, it can also flare up during major life transitions. For instance, a child going through a custody shift or changes in visitation schedules might experience a resurgence of separation anxiety.

These situations involve unfamiliar environments and caregivers, which can be unsettling for a toddler who craves predictability and security. The anxiety might manifest through clinginess, crying spells, or difficulty sleeping – all signs that the child is struggling to adjust to the disruption in their routine and sense of security.

Parenting Techniques to Alleviate Anxiety

Below, we explore practical techniques parents can utilize to minimize their child's anxiety and foster a smoother transition between households:

Establishing a Consistent Routine

For children grappling with separation anxiety, the world can feel like an unpredictable place. Establishing a consistent routine offers a sense of security and predictability that is deeply comforting.

Parents can create structured times for meals, homework, play, and bedtime to provide stability. For example, a morning routine that includes a special goodbye ritual can ease the transition from home to school.

Similarly, a predictable evening routine reassures the child that despite the separation, the day will end with reconnection. These routines become anchors, helping children to navigate the choppy waters of anxiety with greater ease. Co-parents should discuss what a typical day looks like for their child to help ease this transition and mimic the child’s typical day.

Communication Strategies for Reassurance

Effective communication is a lifeline for a child with separation anxiety. Parents can foster security by talking openly about upcoming separations and what to expect. This might involve discussing the details of parenting time, such as when the child will see each parent and what they will do together.

It's also important to validate the child's feelings, letting them know it's okay to miss someone but reassuring them that they are safe and loved. Using age-appropriate language, parents can explain how they will always come back, reinforcing the child's sense of safety and trust in their environment.

Parenting Plans & Anxiety Considerations

When separation anxiety extends beyond the typical developmental scope, it's essential to consider its impact on parenting plans and custody agreements. A well-thought-out parenting plan can include provisions that specifically address the needs of a child with anxiety, such as gradual transitions between homes or structured communication with your co-parent.

When to Seek Professional Help

While some level of separation anxiety is expected during childhood, there comes a point when professional help may be necessary. If a child's anxiety is hindering their ability to participate in normal activities, such as attending school or socializing with peers, it may be time to seek intervention. Persistent physical symptoms, extreme distress, or anxiety that lasts beyond the typical age range are also red flags.

Self-Care for the Anxious Parent

It's important to acknowledge that separation anxiety isn't a one-way street. Parents can also experience a pang of anxiety when leaving their child in the other parent's care, especially during custody transitions. This is completely normal. You've nurtured a strong bond with your child, and the idea of them being away can trigger worries about their well-being or feelings of guilt about needing time apart.

The key to managing your own anxiety lies in self-care and open communication. Prioritize activities that help you de-stress, whether it's exercise, spending time with friends, or pursuing a hobby.

Maintaining open communication with your co-parent is not only important for helping your child cope. Discuss routines, expectations, and any concerns you have about your child's adjustment for your benefit as well.

Finally, remember that a secure and happy parent is essential for a child's well-being. By managing your own anxieties, you'll be better equipped to support your child through this period of adjustment.

Need help with drafting your custodial or visitation arrangement or with another child custody matter? Contact the attorneys at William Kirby Law, Family Law Attorneys at (215) 515-9901.