Separation Anxiety

July 11th, 2016
Posted in Adolescents, Anxiety, Children, Families

As the new school year fast approaches we try to prepare ourselves and our children for this change. Some children do not adjust smoothly. This article contains symptoms, causes and tips for helping your child cope through this transition.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a normal and healthy phase of development in young children.  As little ones, they know they need caregivers for so many things – food, safety, affection, and more!  Young children feel separation anxiety when they are put in new situations without a trusted and known caregiver (like school at the beginning of the year J).  They feel anxiety about who will provide the care they need.  Over time, as they become familiar with the routine and adults caring for them, children are able to transition from caregiver to school with less and less anxiety.

However, some children do not adjust smoothly, and begin to show increasingly severe signs of anxiety.  Separation Anxiety Disorder is different than age-appropriate separation anxiety because they child’s fears are intensity and long-lasting, and the fears interrupt the child’s ability to participate in normal activities. Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder may become agitated at just the thought of being away from a caregiver(s), and may feel or complain of sickness to avoid playing with friends or attending school.

Common symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder

Your child may be experiencing Separation Anxiety Disorder if at least 3 of the following are happening multiple times each week, and symptoms have lasted more than 4 weeks:

  • The child fears something bad will happen to a loved one, especially while child is gone. For example, the child may often worry about a caregiver becoming sick or getting hurt, and state this as a reason they do not want to leave the caregiver.
  • The child fears something bad will happen to themselves. For example, they may worry about being kidnapped or getting lost.
  • Child repeatedly experiences fear/worry when separated from loved one
  • Nightmares about separation.
  • Refuse to go to school.
  • Refusal to go to sleep without being near loved one
  • Problems falling or staying asleep because of the fear of being alone or having nightmares about separation.
  • Physical sickness – headache or stomachache. At the time of separation, or before, children may often complain they feel sick.
  • Cling to the caregiver when separating, or even just following caregiver around constantly at home.

Common Causes of Separation Anxiety Disorder

Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder are experiencing fear because they feel their safety is threatened.  This does not necessarily mean a caregiver is causing the child to feel this way. Caregivers should think about the last six months of the child’s life, and identify if there have been any significant stressful events, or changes in the child’s normal routine. The following are examples:

  • Change in environment and surroundings—new house, school, or day care situation
  • Stress- Stressful situations like switching schools, or the loss of a loved one (pet too!), parent conflict, divorce/separation, caregiver substance abuse
  • Over-protective caregiver – a loving and well-meaning caregiver may have their own fears for the child’s safety or separation that the child senses

Helping your child with Separation Anxiety

  1. Morning/Afternoon routine – Creating a picture schedule of a morning routine that can be repeated each weekday, will help your child focus on the task at hand, rather than worrying about the future separation. The picture schedule will also help your child prepare themselves for the separation. The picture schedule should include the pickup from school so your child can visually see there will be an end to school and a time to reunite with loved ones.
  2. Give your child something special that reminds them of loved ones to take with them. For example, a piece of clothing that smells like loved one, a picture of loved, one, etc.
  3. As you prepare to go to school, talk with your child about things they will enjoy at school (sand table, painting, etc.)
  4. Work with your child’s teacher to have a “ritual” activity you child begins when they first enter the classroom. For example, 1) teacher and caregiver sing a goodbye song to child, 2) caregiver and teacher walk child to sand table, 3) caregiver says goodbye and hugs child, 4) child plays at sand table for 5 minutes before joining class activities

Getting Help for your child

If you are concerned your child is experiencing Separation Anxiety Disorder, discuss this with your child’s teacher, and request a classroom observation or parent consultation with the Mental Health Consultant.  The teacher or consultant will be able to help you decide if professional help could benefit your child.

Posted in: Adolescents, Anxiety, Children, Families