Referral Helpline!

The Burlington Public School System in partnership with William James College are collaborating to bring all Burlington residents and public school students a confidential and free service, INTERFACE Referral Service.

INTERFACE Referral Service is a Mental Health Resource and Referral Helpline that helps connect residents across the lifespan to outpatient mental health services. Common reasons individuals call the Helpline include:
– Anxiety
– Feelings of isolation or depression
– Seeking counseling services for your child
– Divorce or other family issues

For more information please contact:
Mrs. Christine Conceison
INTERFACE Community Liaison (781)270-2922

HELPLINE: 888-244-6843 (toll free); 617-332-3666 (local)Mon – Fri, 9am – 5pm
INTERFACE Burlington

“See you Later!” How to successfully separate and reunite with your child

Take a minute to imagine this scenario: Your child asks you to sign them up for soccer this fall. After registration, you take a trip to the sporting goods store together and buy cleats, shin guards and the “just right” high socks. Your child begins practicing dribbling and passing in the backyard in anticipation of the first practice. And, now, the day has finally arrived! As you pull into the parking lot, park the car, and open the door, your child looks at you with a panicked face and says, “I can’t do it. I don’t want you (their caregiver) to leave.” What has caused this change? How did we move from excitement to worry and fear so quickly? Perhaps it is because they are scared of getting hurt, maybe it is because they don’t think they will be any good, or it could be that they are worried about finding you at the end of practice. Regardless of the cause, they are not budging. You try to coax them to the field, but nothing is working. They are refusing. What now? This is often the case for many children that suffer from separation anxiety. The question becomes how do I help my child successfully separate from me, the caregiver, so they can take part in other life experiences?

Spending quality time with your child at all ages is of the utmost importance as it supports healthy growth and development. It is also useful in structuring a strong family unit. What is equally important, especially during the formative years, is to provide a safe, consistent base for your child so that they are able to grow and develop near you, and, then, apart from you (Shi, 2003). So what if your child is struggling to separate from you at the start of each school day or at an after school activity? As a caregiver, you may start to wonder why this is happening. To have a better understanding, let’s first consider the age when it is developmentally appropriate for your child to want to stay close, followed by a more comprehensive examination of this difficult issue, and finally, evidence based interventions that are available to help you and your child develop a plan that leads to smoother transitions during times of separation. 

When do attachments typically develop?

Helping infants feel safe and secure is one of the most important roles for any caregiver and is one that continues to be necessary long past the infant stage. Attachment, on the part of the caregiver, is needed from the start, but around 7 months of age, infants will begin to demonstrate their own strong attachment to a specific caregiver. John Bowlby and Mary D. Salter Ainsworth studied the behavior of infants and their mothers and researched what has become known as attachment theory (Ackerman, 2020). It was noted when a preferred caregiver left the room where their child was playing, the child would demonstrate signs of distress, i.e. crying, looking for the caregiver, vocalizing their discomfort. For infants that had developed a secure attachment, caregivers were able to soothe them successfully upon return. For those with less secure attachment, the reactions upon return were quite different. One group of children seemed angry or passive toward the caregiver and these children are classified as having ambivalent attachment. Another group ignored or avoided the parent when they returned and are considered avoidantly attached. The final group had no real pattern to how they acted when the caregiver returned and this group is classified as being avoidantly attached (Mandelbaum & Shapiro, 2011).  

This video shows an example of a mother and her baby demonstrating secure attachment. 

The Strange Situation

What was noteworthy during this situation was when infants felt secure and cared for, they were more willing to explore their surroundings. In the video, it shows the baby exploring materials and looking around the room, while her mother is in the room. The baby recognized that her mother was there for her, if needed, thus helping her feel secure enough to explore. When the mother left the room, the child became upset, as she no longer felt that same sense of security. Due to the fact that this mother and child had already developed a strong bond, the child was easily soothed when the mother returned and the baby was able to resume playing. If a child and caregiver do not have a secure attachment, the child may develop maladaptive coping strategies, to try to manage their dysregulation (Mandelbaum & Shapiro, 2011). As children grow, their tolerance for being apart from their caregiver(s) can grow as well. By about 2, separation should become easier as toddlers recognize that when a caregiver leaves, they will also return (Dallaire & Weinraub, 2005). Ultimately, the goal is, again, to provide a strong base of care and connection so your child is able to explore the world and grow their feelings about their own self-efficacy (Mandelbaum & Shapiro, 2011). 

Separation Anxiety

What if that independence and self-efficacy did not develop or it did develop but now my child is reverting from that growth? If separation is difficult, it can feel overwhelming and stressful for the child as well as for the caregiver. It can impact the caregiver/child relationship, relationships with others (for both the child and caregiver), and impact the overall quality of life. So what leads to this? There are a number of potential factors that may cause separation anxiety. It may be linked to a specific change or important event: the death of a family member, relative or pet; a big transition (i.e.; moving houses, schools); divorce; an event that led to a separation (i.e. your child getting lost in a store); learning of a traumatic event in the news (i.e. a pandemic), among other possible causes (Psychology Today, 2019). Another possible reason is one in which the origin comes from a good place. When a child shares feelings of stress or worry with caregivers, often the caregiver wants to help the child and so they decide to accommodate. Unfortunately, over time the message the child learns is that if something is too hard, my caregiver will step in and do it for me. Thus, maybe I am not capable of handling it myself (Lebowitz, 2020). This pattern can be linked to families that developed secure attachments during those formative years when it was important for parents to watch over their young children and protect them from danger. (Lebowitz, 2020). Now that the child is older, it is important for caregivers to step back and allow their child space to work these things out for themselves. If never given the opportunity to solve the problem, explore the world, or take the chance, how will a child ever develop independence? If this is the case, it is important to take some steps to alter this path. 

Evidence Based Interventions

Regardless of the origin, now that your child is struggling to separate, how do we change this? Ultimately, the plan needs to be one that helps your child enjoy taking part in life events without needing a caregiver at their side. This should not be confused with helping a child when they have asked for help with something they have not yet learned to do or learned to handle themselves, which can range from learning to ride a bike to needing support if they are being bullied.  

What to do when your child asks for help with something you believe they can do on their own. 

  • When your child asks for help or tells you they can’t do something, let them know you understand that it may be challenging, and you know they are more than capable of doing it (Lebovitz, 2019).

For Example: 

Child: “I can’t go to school. I don’t want to leave you.”

Caregiver: “I know that going to school can feel hard and I know you can do it. I know how strong you are and that is going to help you today.”

Strategies for Separation

  • Be clear when you need to separate from your child. Trying to sneak out or avoid sharing the plan can backfire in the long run, as changes will feel very unpredictable for your child. (Psychology Today, 2019).

For Example:

Caregiver: “This afternoon I will be going to a doctor’s appointment and you will stay home with your grandparent. I will see you after the appointment.”

  • Don’t stretch out the good-byes. Keep it simple and clear and leave. It will communicate to your child that you know you are leaving them in a safe situation (Couch, 2020). 
  • Use gradual exposures when possible. This helps make the change feel more manageable (Wood, et al, 2007).

For Example:

At bedtime, leave the room for 30 seconds, and then return. After a few nights, adjust it to a minute, and then return. Continue to pair this plan with praise. 

Caregiver: “I am proud of how brave you are when I leave the room!”

At school dropoff, start by walking your child to the front door and saying good-bye. Eventually, walk them to the sidewalk and allow them to continue to the building without you. Continue to pair this plan with praise!

At a friend’s house, park in the driveway while your child visits a friend. At a future get together with the same friend, let your child know you will leave for 10 minutes to run an errand and will then return. Again, pair this plan with praise! 

What if they are still upset during these situations?

  • Allow your child the opportunity to struggle through difficult tasks/experiences on their own. Remember, this does not mean you can never help your child, but always allow them the opportunity to accomplish things on their own. If they are able to figure it out, that feeling of accomplishment is incredibly valuable. 

What if I need more help? 

  • Look for a counselor in the area to help your family with this process. You may want to find one that specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, as research has shown good results with this type of therapy (Hirshfeld-Becker, et al, 2010). Cognitive Behavioral Therapists will often start by educating your child on recognizing how the anxiety manifests in their body. They may then teach your child strategies,i.e. mantras, mnemonics, thought stopping, to use when facing a worry or fear, and then they will work to put these strategies into practice (Swift Yasgur, 2018).
  • Similarly, if you (the caregiver) are managing your own anxiety, consider working with a therapist as well (Couch, 2020). 

Here are two websites that will help you find a therapist:

  • Another great option is the The Space Program out of Yale University. They have found they can support caregivers in helping their child, even if the child is unwilling or unable to attend sessions. Part of the program focuses on family accommodation. They will help you evaluate what is working and what is not, and design plans to change what is not working. If you are not located near New Haven, many therapists around the country have been trained with this program.

(Lebowitz, 2020).

  • It is also possible that in working with a therapist, they will suggest reaching out to your pediatrician or to a psychiatrist to consult about medication. However, medication should continue to be paired with therapy, as research shows the combination is more helpful than medication alone (Swift-Yasgur, 2018). 

What does this look like in action?

This video demonstrates many of the tips listed above!

If you have any questions or need further support, please do not hesitate to reach out to your school counselor!

Jessica Greene

School Counselor


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