Separation anxiety can be a common response to a significant loss for preschool or elementary-age children. You may find that your child has difficulty letting you out of their sight and may even seem to be in your personal space all the time. We see this most commonly in children whose parent or primary caregiver has died, regardless of whether the loss was expected or sudden.
Many families want to soothe the worries of their “clingy” child but also feel frustrated by trying to meet these increased needs following a loss, at a time that is difficult and stressful for everyone in the family. Here is some guidance about ways to address behaviors related to separation anxiety.
Recognize the Need for Connection.
Let your child know that it makes sense to want reassurance from loved ones when a special person has died. You can reassure your child that they will be taken care of and that even on hard days when big feelings are coming up, you are in this together. When it’s necessary to be apart, you can offer a tangible reminder to help your child feel connected to you—for example, a family photo to keep in their book bag or a special voicemail message they can listen to when feeling anxious.
Provide Sensory Comforts.
Children sometimes have strong emotions without the capacity to verbalize them or self-soothe. You can work together with your child to make a “five senses” list of sensory items that make them feel safe and happy. Some examples include wrapping up in a soft blanket (touch) or using a scented lotion that is relaxing for them (smell).
Keep Things Routine.
Although this may feel like a topsy-turvy time for your family, it’s important to maintain familiar routines, such as bedtime rituals and mealtimes, as much as possible. When this is not possible, try to institute a new routine for the time being so that your child knows what to expect. Some families find it helpful to post a written schedule or calendar in their home as a reminder of what will be coming up next. Be sure to include important family rituals and special time together whenever possible.
Consult a Kids Path Counselor.
Children as young as four years old may be eligible for individual grief counseling at Kids Path. For a no-cost phone consultation about how your young child is coping with death or illness, please call 336.544.5437 and ask to speak with any Kids Path counselor.