Separation Anxiety: Mental Wellness Tips For Kids, Pets And Parents

Going from spending all your time to just a few hours a day together is a big change.

When Scarborough, Ont., mom Cicela Bella Bravatti tells her two kids it will soon be time to head to school or daycare, she hears a familiar refrain about the family’s dog, Luna: “She’ll cry if we go.”

The siblings are obviously sharing their own feelings, Bravatti told HuffPost Canada, as they’ve adored the seven-year-old pet since she came into their lives as a puppy.

“They’re glued to her most of the day, so it’s hard for them to leave. She’s the first one they want to see when they come home,” she said.

Separation anxiety hits hard this month

September is a month of transition for many Canadian families. Kids are heading back to school for the first time since March and a reopening economy has led many parents who were temporarily working from home to return to their physical workplaces, leaving pets on their lonesome for most of the day. But going from spending every waking moment together to being apart for several hours can cause people (and animals!) of all ages to experience separation anxiety.

Dr. Shimi Kang, a Vancouver-based psychiatrist and the author of The Dolphin Parent, said that separation anxiety is part of growing up for kids, but has become a widespread and issue in the pandemic that can impair people’s ability to function, including parents.

“It’s unprecedented for us to spend so much time together,” she explained, as that extra bonding has made physically leaving loved ones that much harder. What’s more, parental anxiety is heightened by ongoing safety concerns.

“Because of neuroplasticity, as lockdown went on, we developed habits of seeing the same people and emotionally attaching to them. Right now, I think we’re seeing a completely new type of separation anxiety: Parents are dropping their children off at school and worrying all the time.”

Outside of the pandemic, separation problems are common for Winnipeg-based family therapist Leslie Hackett to see at her practice. She told HuffPost Canada that kids and teens can find separation of any kind very difficult, so much so that it can distress an entire household.

What should parents know about managing their family’s attachment distress, including their own? We asked three experts to share their wellness tips:

Kids

Understand that kids and teens don’t always show their anxiety. The signs of separation anxiety aren’t always obvious, Kang notes, and often manifests through small signs of feeling afraid. “Anxiety is really fear, that’s fundamentally what it is. And that sense of fear or not being safe triggers our body’s responses of freeze, fight or flight,” she said.

Parents should be on the lookout for these responses when there are changes in their kids behaviour: “Acting out” or having a disproportionate number of outbursts may be a teenager’s way of processing their “fight” reflex. A kid who is suddenly disorganized and keeps misplacing their backpack may be experiencing the “flight” reflex, as they’re looking for a way out of attending school.

Ask open-ended questions about school. In Kang’s experience, the root of a child’s anxiety may not be obvious. That’s why she tells parents to ask a straightforward question, when they think something’s wrong: “Are you worried about getting COVID-19 at school?”

 An open-ended question may subvert a parent's assumptions of what they think their kid is worried about.
 An open-ended question may subvert a parent's assumptions of what they think their kid is worried about.

Kang said, “I asked that question to my daughter and I was surprised when she said, ‘I’m worried about people getting mad at me if I accidentally step a little bit close to someone.’” It turned out that earlier in the summer, her daughter had had such an experience when she accidentally breached someone’s personal space.

Once the parent knows what their child’s specific concerns are, they can work on strategies to address the fear head-on.

Use reassuring phrases and routines to ground kids. Because it’s inevitable that separation will happen, Hackett advises parents to be reassuring, when they talk about being away from each other, and to make the next “new normal” as predictable as possible.

“I think it really helps when kids know what to expect and having a routine that everybody is aware of can prepare kids for transitions,” she said.

Hackett suggested parents use sentences like the following to help little kids feel more stable when faced with change:

  • “We’ll be leaving the house at this time and this is where we’re going.”

  • “You’ll be at school during the day while I go to work. Then, I will come and pick you up at this time, so we can go home together.”

  • “This is what’s going to be happening Monday through Friday, now that you’re back at school/daycare.”

Know when to reach out. Most children will get over an initial period of anxiety over time, as long as they aren’t kept at home, if they say they don’t want to go to school on any given day, and therefore can’t make progress, Kang said.

When feelings are too distressing, youth mental health professionals like Kang and Hackett often turn to more formal therapy to help kids learn how to take baby steps to reducing their worries. Kang notes that behavioural, response and exposure therapies are some of the most effective. In exposure therapy, for example, kids may ease into therapy by imagining themselves getting ready for their first day of school.

But before seeking professional help for their kids, Kang hopes that by working together with teachers and the family’s own support system of loved ones, they can help make the transition smoother.

Plan activities the whole household looks forward to. “When my kids come home from school, they can give Luna her favourite treat and we all go to the park,” Bravatti said

And it’s important to recognize that everyone needs extra comfort sometimes, as they’re adapting to change.

“If they seem like they’re having a harder time than usual, I’ll bring Luna to walk them to school or daycare, so they have a little extra time with her and me.”

Pets

Heart-breaking whines and howls from pets are making many Canadians feel guilty about leaving the house. According to Laura Bye, separation anxiety boils down to basic pet psychology. The Save Our Scruff founder told HuffPost Canada humans are training their pets at all times by what they do or don’t do. When owners make their arrivals and departures a big deal for their pets, they’re putting their animal in a high-energy, playful state that becomes anxiety, when they’re left in an empty home or crate for hours on end.

Watch: Canadians’ dogs and cats with separation anxiety are breaking human hearts. Here’s what dog rescuers say can help. Story continues below.

“The best tip I can say is that about 15 minutes or half an hour before you leave the house, that’s when you start to absolutely ignore them,” Bye said.

For Dog Tales Rescue and Sanctuary handler Cassandra Ferrante, getting pets used to being alone for short periods of time before heading to work can help; even if a pet doesn’t show anxiety, preventing that feeling through gradual periods of separation is key.

Recognize their triggers. Alyssa Williams is a Toronto-based 30-year-old capoeira student who fostered rescue dogs before she got Bruno, a poodle mix, 10 months ago. He was slightly anxious before the pandemic, she noticed, but now whines when he’s left alone and becomes hyper-vigilant outside.

“I wish I could tell Bruno how perfect he is ... and that I’ll be home before he’s knows it,” she told HuffPost Canada.

Williams has learned to anticipate what will heighten his anxiety — watching his owner leave or being near other dogs — and is training him to respond in a healthy way.

This training can look like building a healthy routine, one where moderate exercise, crates, and dog trainers can be a part of.

Parents

Role-model a positive attitude about the new “new normal.” One of the most important elements of keeping others relaxed about separation, Hackett said, is by modelling that behaviour; kids can pick up on tense, nervous atmospheres.

“We can’t expect our kids to be calm if we ourselves are not calm,” she said. “It’s so important that we be aware of our body language and tone of voice.”

Use stress-management strategies. Parents who are having a hard time letting go should be open to developing coping and calming skills through meditation, mindfulness exercises, and outdoor activities.

“Recognize that this is a time of extraordinary stress,” Kang pointed out.

Make your time together matter. Parents who notice that everyone in the house feels anxious about spending more time apart should strive to make what time they do spend together as special as possible. It will help make this transition period easier for everyone ― your kids, your pets and you included!

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