Friday, 27 July 2012

The Anxiety of Separation

I was listening yesterday to someone offering advice around 'separation anxiety' for young children and how to address it.  In many respects what was being said sounded sensible but it still made me inwardly scream at my computer.  Why?  Mainly because I have firmly come to the belief that children always do things for a reason and that generally these are reasons which are logical given what life  has taught them thus far.  Children are born wired for survival and to let the main source of comfort and getting their needs met go can seem devastating.

For children who have lived through domestic violence and abuse, or for those going through a family break up, either from a relationship break down, or by being taken into the care system, the thought of being separated from their main carer can be too traumatic.  If a child has had to leave their home, go into a refuge or stay in a strange place, has seen their Dad or Mum leave the family home, or has been removed from their own home and placed with strangers then this will have a profound effect on how they view their World.

Adults often wrongly assume that because a child is now free from the tensions and fears which come from living with any kind of abuse or violence that they will be so relieved and grateful that they will be more able to relax and get on with the important task of being a child.  However, this takes time and one of the most important elements to adjusting post trauma and abuse is the relationship and availability of a the main carer.. 

If we consider that our brains are all about helping us survive and that our behaviour throughout life is dominated by this inbuilt response in a variety of ways to getting our basic needs met.  A baby is already wired pre-birth to tune in its mother, or in their absence, the main carer, as its source of food, comfort, safety and care, if this is not readily available then this will create anxiety around getting basic needs met which will often continue through life.

When a child grows up in a home where things are unpredictable, tense and chaotic they will not experience the reassurance of a regular routine and a readily available carer.  They will experience stress and ongoing anxiety without comfort and containment so that levels will remain high and the child will grow up with few certainties to draw upon in later life.  When it comes time for a child to then be separated from the only person who has been available to them in some capacity, however erratically, they will experience high levels of stress and anxiety but without the ability to understand or regulate these strong physical and psychological reactions.

In my experience extra time and a great deal of patience, support and planning is needed if a child has to be apart from their main carer.  This can be hard for parents/carers and professionals as there are often conversations around the child 'controlling' everyone and being manipulative.  Behaviour may appear like this but given that they may feel that their carer might not be safe with out them, or they might not come back for them or the abuser may find either of them whilst they are apart and take one of them.  If the child had an abrupt departure from their home they may wonder if a social worker will just tum up at school today and take them away from their new foster carer.

There are many complex thoughts and feelings which may run through a child's head just before and at the point of separation and there has been research to show that the stress hormone cortisol, which stimulates the body for fight/flight/freeze, is at a high level during this process and with out someone in the Nursery or school who understands this and tries to help lower it by encouraging self soothing activities and techniques then the child will remain in this uncomfortable physical and mental state for the rest of the day.

Of course, there comes a point where children do have to be separated but as I said it needs careful, gentle handling and is a much longer process requiring investment, patience, compassion and understanding by all parties prior to attempting it.  Seek advice and support whether you are a professional or the child's carer and steer clear of thinking it's just got to be done now as it may have to wait and be done very slowly to build confidence and trust and that takes time.


  1. I used to work with traumatised children - and so agree.

    And we should never assume that children mirror our adult feelings. There will always be something we don't know - so we must begin by listening to children and understanding their memories, feelings and attachments. If we can begin by respecting them and their experiences, then we sow the seeds that they might come to trust and respect us.

  2. Thank you Jo, I could not have put it better myself & I am keen to spread awareness as I feel that parents/carers & professionals often do not have it and get impatient & exasperated with how long a process it can be. The more we can talk about it & hopefully train people to understand how attachment and trauma impact a child for the long and short term the better it will be for everyone, especially the children.