Separation anxiety

The following is an excerpt from the ebooklet Working with children with separation anxiety: School drop offs and camps by Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim.

About 4 per cent of primary school age children experience excessive separation anxiety when separated from the parent or primary care giver[1] Schniering, C.A., Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (2000). Issues in the diagnosis and assessment of anxiety disorders in children and ...continue. These children persistently worry about being forgotten, or the parent being harmed or not returning.

Separation anxiety is part of normal childhood development. It begins around six months of age and typically ends by the time children begin kindergarten or preschool. A healthy level of separation anxiety indicates the development of a close bond and attachment to the primary caregiver.

Characteristics of separation anxiety

Children experiencing separation anxiety may exhibit one or more of the following when separating from a parent:

  • crying hysterically
  • shaking with fear
  • temper tantrums
  • being clingy, holding on to a parent’s hand or a leg, or hiding behind the parent
  • withdrawing from others
  • whinging
  • shyness
  • psychosomatic symptoms, such as headaches, stomach aches, vomiting
  • lack of trust of teacher or other school staff
  • refusing to speak.


Separation anxiety can be triggered or exacerbated by situations perceived by these children as distressing, including:

  • being left at school or someone’s home
  • an invitation to sleep at a friend’s house
  • starting a new school
  • a pending school camp
  • parental work trips
  • parental divorce or illness
  • moving house
  • the birth of a new sibling
  • the death of a close relative, friend or pet
  • experiencing or witnessing a disaster (natural or man-made), violence or an accident.

Who is more ‘at risk’?

Separation anxiety is more common in children with a parent who:

  • is over-protective
  • focuses on negatives
  • reassures excessively and gives in to the child’s demands
  • allows the child to co-sleep with one or both parents
  • has unresolved trauma or grief that still impacts on their life
  • has on-going concerns about the child and their learning.

Some children have a biological predisposition to ‘fearful shyness’, a behavioural inhibition to shy away from novel situations. Inhibited children are at a greater risk of separation anxiety.

Where separation anxiety arises from a parent’s own anxiety, both the parent and the child can fuel each other’s anxiety.

When to seek further assistance

If the separation anxiety is excessive, interferes with the child’s daily functioning, and lasts for more than four weeks, it is essential the child be referred to an appropriate professional.

If left untreated, separation anxiety can intensify and result in difficulty making friends, concentrating and completing schoolwork; it may also escalate and result in school refusal and other anxiety disorders in adolescence and adulthood.

 Separation anxiety can co-exist with generalised anxiety disorders and social phobia. Refer the child via the parents to a psychologist or the family doctor. Encourage the parents to follow the recommendations made by the clinician and share appropriate recommendations with the school.

Strategies to support the child with separation anxiety

  • Work with the child’s parents. It is important to communicate regularly with the child’s parents. Develop a clear plan that is appropriate to the child’s age, including a morning drop-off ritual, and parent-agreed teacher intervention for failed ritual.
  • Reassure parents that the child is being supported after the parent leaves. Explain that the child is fine shortly after the parent departs and that activities and responsibilities help the child to settle in the classroom.
  • Develop a morning ritual. The ritual is designed to increase feelings of certainty and security for the child and to reduce emotional distress. The morning ritual requires two key steps:

Step 1: Establish a specific ‘see you later’ area.

  • Ensure the area is age-appropriate. The place where the goodbye or separation from parent ritual occurs should be age-appropriate. For a child, in the beginning year of school the departure point for the parents might be a specific area such as the ‘see-you-later window’ or the ‘see-you-later step’ at the classroom door; for junior primary it could be where the children line up; and for older students it could be inside the front gate or at the school office. Over time, the distance between the drop-off point and the classroom can increase in incremental steps.


Copyright © Murray Evely and Zoe Ganim 2011

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