separation anxiety in children: attachment behaviours

It’s so important for us to give our kids the message, “I’m NOT going to suddenly leave you”.

I was recently washing my hands in an airport bathroom when I witnessed a brief moment between a child and an adult. It was an ordinary moment – the kind of thing that happens every day.

A young girl of about 3 lay on the bathroom floor. She was mid-tantrum; clearly deeply distressed about something. In her state of upset, she was refusing to co-operate with the young adult who was with her (an older sister or cousin, perhaps). The adult seemed distressed too; they were running late for their plane, I assumed.

“If you don’t come now, mom and dad are going to leave on the airplane without us!”, the adult offered. At this, the young girl got up and followed the adult out the bathroom.

It had worked. The adult needed the child to get on the plane, and a threat of separation had done the trick.

Why do children worry about being separated from their parents?

We know well that threats of separation seem to work wonders on getting children to co-operate. But why is this? And what are the potentially negative consequences of these short-term wins?

Attachment research provides us with some answers. As social, relational beings, initially completely dependent on adult caregivers for survival, maintaining proximity to our caregivers and attachment figures is a central driver of human behaviour.

Infants are biologically wired from birth to experience extreme distress if separated from their caregivers. Thus, separation triggers what we call “attachment behaviours”, such as crying, in an attempt to bring about a reunion.

Because of this strong innate drive, even in moments of distress, children will most often choose proximity. As much as the crying is in many ways an “automatic” response, so too is following a caregiver who is moving off.

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The effects of threatening separation

Attachment research also highlights some unintended negative consequences that may result from using threats of separation to help manage tantrums or increase compliance. And they may be the very things that parents are trying to prevent.

Research shows that using threats of separation can increase clinginess, anxiety and the frequency and intensity of tantrums. Without the assurance that they will definitely never be left; not at a new school or after doing something wrong; “attachment behaviours” such as crying and clinging, meant to bring about proximity, are turned up to “maximum”.

This is how the brain is wired to work. This means that future attempts to get co-operation (especially when it requires a separation) may be much more difficult.

separation anxiety in children: child clinging to his father's leg

What can you do if your child suffers from separation anxiety?

So what can we do when we are in a rush and we need to get our child to co-operate? Here are a couple of quick tips:

  1. Anticipate and prepare

    If you are going to be in a situation in which you suspect your child may struggle to co-operate, try to prepare them… “Our plane is going soon. I’m going to take you to the bathroom, but we won’t be able to play with the water like we normally do, because we are in a hurry”. Or, “We are flying on a plane today. We will have lots of things to do and will see lots of new people. I will keep you close, so you will be safe. I need you to hold my hand and come with me.”

  2. Acknowledge and ‘okay’ the feeling

    “You are very sad that we can’t play with the water now and we have to go. It is sad we have to hurry.” Or, “You are very scared of all the strange people in masks, but I will keep you safe”.

  3. Hold the boundary

    “Time to say bye-bye bathroom. We will play with water again another time.” Or, “I’m going to pick you up now to take you to the plane, because it’s important we stay together and I have to go”.

  4. Offer some control with possible alternatives

    “We are going to the plane now. We can play with Mr. Teddy on the plane or watch some TV. What do you choose?”

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If you feel like you or a caregiver in your child’s life would benefit from some parenting support to help better understand your child’s emotions and behaviour, Ububele regularly run online courses. Click HERE to see their upcoming events.

Nicki Dawson is a psychologist who specializes in parent-infant psychotherapy.  Nicki heads up Ububele’s Parent-Infant Programme, which focuses on the importance of the first 1000 days and includes their Home Visiting Programme, Baby Mat and Newborn Behavioural Observation Services. She is also currently completing her PhD in the area of attachment and infant mental health.

Ububele is run by a dynamic team of Psychologists and Early Childhood Community Practitioners who focus on improving the emotional development, mental health and wellbeing of children, their parents and caregivers. Our mission is to positively impact the mental health of South Africans through interventions and training programmes which focus on infancy, early childhood and experiential group work. We offer a range of free and paid-for services for families and professionals, including counselling, therapeutic work, advice and support, educational assessments and training interventions emphasising preventative mental health strategies for children and their parents and caregivers.