How to Handle Separation Anxiety

According to, separation anxiety disorder (SAD) affects many children and young people in care. It is a severe form of anxiety that’s triggered by a sense of separation from home or from a parent, caregiver or sibling with which the child has a strong emotional attachment.

The same article reveals that SAD in fostered children can be difficult to treat because the problem often rests with them being separated from their biological parents, their siblings or their home. Given that circumstances beyond their control mean they can’t go home and be with their family, this further compounds the problem and can leave them with a feeling of abandonment.

As a foster carer, it can be incredibly difficult to see a child in distress and wanting their family, with you helpless to give them what they want. But, with patience, empathy and time to bond, you can help to ease the impact of SAD and let them know that they’re safe and cared for.

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Here, we offer a practical guide on handling separation anxiety in foster children. Use the links below to navigate or read on for the complete guide.

Why is separation anxiety in foster care so difficult to address?

The Social Care Institute for Excellence reveals that many children are affected by separation anxiety disorder at a young age. As they grow into toddlerhood, they recognise how dependent they are on their parents or caregiver, and this can cause anxiety when they’re left in the care of strangers for a short time.

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However, while many children grow out of SAD as they get older, the problem can persist well into early adulthood in looked-after children. This is due to the trauma of being removed from their home and birth parents, and later moved between multiple placements, which can cause a sense of fear, anxiousness and insecurity.

Although fostering is a safeguarding measure used in a child’s best interests, children can often find it difficult to understand why they’ve been removed from their birth parents. This, in turn, can create trust issues and make it difficult for them to bond with caregivers – further exasperating separation anxiety and leaving them feeling desperate to return home.

Some children in foster care have complicated relationships with their birth parents, which can make the condition very difficult to address in a fostering environment. Children and young people of any age can exhibit symptoms of the disorder, and it’s not a condition that’s likely to go away overnight.

Read on for our best practice tips on how to handle separation anxiety in foster children.

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How to handle separation anxiety in fostering

According to Holy Cross Services, there are things you can do to alleviate its impact and ensure the child feels safe, cared for and secure. Below, we provide guidance on dealing with separation anxiety in your foster family.

Build an Environment of Trust

A good place to start combatting separation anxiety is helping the child feel like they can trust their caregiver. From a fostering perspective, you need to make sure your home feels safe and inclusive so that they feel a part of your family and not simply an outsider with an uncertain future ahead of them.

Taking care of a child with separation anxiety takes dedication and patience, and you need to show both of these traits to build trust. Try to show how you much you care for them wherever possible, as this will help build trust and show them that you’re a stable fixture in their life.

Encourage them to Talk About How They’re Feeling

While developing an open and positive dialogue with a new child in your care can take time, it’s worth making the effort to have transparent conversations about how they may be feeling. This could help lessen the symptoms of SAD, like stress and anxiety, while reinforcing you as a trustworthy figure who they know they can turn to when they’re feeling down.

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Raise the Problem with Their Teachers, Social Workers and Birth Parents

Having recognised the symptoms of SAD in your foster child, it’s important to tell others about how they’re feeling so that the right approach is taken in every aspect of their life.

First, you should inform their social worker, who can liaise with their birth parents and other family members as to the best course of action. Their teachers should also be told about the condition so that they can approach the child in the right way and position themselves as a reliable adult who can offer help and support in times of distress.

Go Out of Your Way to Develop a Bond

Sometimes, children don’t fully understand exactly why they’re in care and could see you as a stranger keeping them away from their birth family. That’s why it’s crucial to find time to bond, so that you can show them that you do care about them and their wellbeing, and can offer a safe, secure and nurturing home.

Seek Therapy for Older Children with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety in younger children can sometimes be alleviated with a careful approach and lots of bonding time, but it can be much harder to handle in older children who may have suffered SAD for many years.

Separation anxiety can grow more severe in young adults, with the feelings growing more concrete. It could also make them very dubious and cynical of bonding with new foster families, as they’ve never benefitted from the comfort of a reliable parental figure.

For these reasons, the best course of action in tackling separation anxiety in older children is often through therapy, according to Sessions with a psychologist or licensed therapist can help to hit upon the root cause of a young person’s SAD and put in place a strategy whereby they start to recover and live more positively with the condition.

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Remember to talk to the child about how they may be feeling and suggest psychotherapy as a means of managing the symptoms of separation anxiety.

Where to find help for dealing with separation anxiety

Handling separation anxiety can put incredible strain on your foster family, and it can be a hard condition to live with as a caregiver. You may feel overwhelmed by having to care for a child in such distress, or even a little helpless in the situation.

But handling the impact of separation anxiety isn’t your burden to bear alone. At the NFA, we can help put you in touch with a community of experienced caregivers and support officers, providing advice and assistance, learn more about our foster carer support and training.

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