Is my five-year-old showing severe seperation anxiety?

My five year old daughter is showing severe separation anxiety?  About four weeks ago, her 8 year old uncle (my little brother) was killed in a car wreck.  We used simple terms and answered as many questions as she wanted to ask about his death.  Other than our initial sit down talk with her we have not initiated talk around her about his death.  All of a sudden in the last week she has become extremely fearful of anyone leaving, but especially her father.  When friends visit she must kiss and hug and wave and run to them, and kiss and hug and wave over and over until we are all exhausted by the routine.  But when Daddy leaves for work in the morning she is having a full blown tantrum blow out.  She literally claws and clings to him as he is going out the door and when he leaves she lays on the floor screaming and crying.  Everyday it has gotten a little worse.  I am heartbroken for her and just don’t know what to do for her.  She has a twin sister and a baby sister and her fear is causing her twin to have anxiety also.  Is this normal for a grieving five year old?  Will she grow out of it with time? I would be so grateful for any advice.

You are right, your daughter is showing severe separation anxiety and it is likely due to the death of her uncle. It is understandable and natural.  She will probably get better with time.

However, there are things that you can do to help her. These things are a bit contrary to what we would first think, but they do work to resolve grief.  If we avoid things we are anxious about, they get worse.

  1. Talk to her about her uncle’s death. Do this at a time when things are calm and the two of you are alone together. Raise the issue, perhaps by saying something like you really miss your little brother and are sad by his death. Listen if she is able to talk. It is important for her to know that it is ok to feel sad, angry and upset.  It is OK for her to share these feelings with you. She may not talk much.  You can show her how you are dealing with his death. You may want to ask her what she misses about her uncle, what she remembers about him.  You can say things like “I miss his laughter and his smile.”  Maybe she could draw some pictures about him. It is OK if she draws pictures of the crash or if she draws pictures of other things about him. You can also share a bit about anxieties you feel. “I worry a bit when your dad leaves in the car but I say to myself that he is going to be alright.”
  2. The second thing is to discourage her inappropriate behavior.  Although it is understandable, it is not helping her. This should come after you have established that it is OK to talk about the death.  Determine with her, how many times she can say goodbye to friends and visitors. It might be three.  It might be five. When the number of goodbyes is up, they leave.  Don’t let it drag on. This process may help her talk about what she is afraid of. Encourage talking about what she is afraid of. Setting limits together will allow her to gain some control.
  3. Talk to her about her reaction when her dad leaves. Try to figure out a way that she can express her feelings without clinging, clawing and a temper tantrum. Again, work with her to set some limits.  When the agreed upon goodbye routine is finished, he should leave.

If things don’t start to get better soon, you may want to seek some assistance from a professional. Your family doctor can help you find the right person.

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