We receive messages every week from parents, grandparents, friends and family members all wanting to help support someone through their loss. Questions, queries and check in's make up the majority of our online communication & Support.
The most common theme this week has been around separation anxiety in siblings that has developed after the death of a baby in the immediate family.
"When I spent 4 days in hospital being induced I didn't see Lily at all and I am sure that has lead to this. I had to stay in to have baby Peter and Lily was not allowed to visit."
What is separation anxiety?
Firstly it is important to recognise that separation is a normal part of a child’s development. Children learn to become comfortable with separating from their main caregiver if they have experience doing so in a range of situations and environments that are reassuring and positive.
Children can develop separation anxiety when they get distressed and anxious in a situation that means they need to leave their main caregiver. They might get upset by new faces, environments or situations that feel are uncomfortable, unsafe or that they are unsure of.
Separation anxiety can be triggered by a change in routine, an event that has occured, sensing worry or anxiety from their care giver or high emotions linked to the environment that they are in.
The intensity and timing of separation anxiety can vary a lot from child to child and situation to situation. Lily and Peter's parents feel that although they have tried to keep the routine the same for Lily she is naturally sensing their sadness and is displaying separation anxiety after not seeing her mummy for 4 days.
What are the signs of separation anxiety?
Your child/ren might show a number of signs of separation anxiety. You might find that they cry when left with someone else and that they only want you. Some children might not want to play on their own and want to be near you most of the time. You may find that they might start waking up early or they might start having sleeping problems.
Reassuring Lily and Peter's parents that this could be a healthy reaction to a big change within the family is really important.
Lily spends most of her time with her mummy and has not spent a huge amount of time away from her. Lily has been involved in the pregnancy of her brother Peter from going to his scan at 12 weeks. The 4 days spent away in hospital, the emotions and feelings the parents have and the changes that will take place now that baby Peter has died will have an affect on the family and on Lily.
Separation anxiety is a sign that Lily's awareness of the world is evolving and that she knows she is dependent on her parents for her care. There have been a lot of changes, discussions about birthing Peter who was stillborn, planning a funeral and sad emotions with lots if tears. Lily's reaction is very normal.
The experience of Baby Peter dying will have an impact on the whole family. In this situation Lily being separated from her parents may make her feel unsafe so she understandably wants to be near.
How can you handle separation anxiety?
It can really feel like an emotional rollercoaster for parents and for Lily too.
Here are some tips for managing this stage-
1. Build up the separation gradually when you feel it is right
You could try practising short-term separations around the house. For example if you go to another room, talk to your child so that they can still hear your voice and when you return, tell them that you are there. Over time they will understand that your disappearance is only temporary and that they are ok.
You could try leaving Lily with a family member that Lily knows well for a short time at first. Just 10-15 mins initially. By building up gradually to longer periods you may find that this eases.
2. Preparing them for what is happening next or later
You could talk to your child/ren about what you’ll be doing later.
You might talk to them about having dinner together later, the play date you’re taking them on after nursery finishes, or the book you’ll both read this afternoon.
With this you’re reinforcing the message that you will be coming back. It’s also important that you follow your promises to build your child’s confidence.
3. Leave something familiar with them
A little toy they love or something with your smell on it, like a scarf or jumper, might comfort your child. Some parents like to give them a photo or a keyring with a photo inside so that the child can look at it when they are not with you.
4. Keep a routine
Children benefit from regular patterns in their routines as well as any goodbyes. Whether it’s a kiss, wave and a ‘mummy will be back soon’ or whatever variation, pick something that works and stick with it. Creating an exit ritual is important as it will help them understand that ‘mummy always leaves after kissing and saying goodbye and comes after some time’.
5. Reassure and build up their confidence
It is important to reassure your children and encourage them to have some independence on their own terms. When a sibling has died there can be many spontaneous emotions and children will pick up on this. Where possible reassuring them will help them foster resilience.
Carrying your own grief, managing your children, the home and life can feel tough.
Please reach out in our support groups, ask questions, and check in with anything that you feel that we can help or support you with.