Many parents are faced with children who tantrum when left with a sitter. This is separation anxiety and is normal behavior for babies or toddlers. It is also common for a young child to experience some homesickness when at an “overnight away from home activity” for the first time; such as at sleepover or camp. It can become more problematic when children are faced with leaving mommy and daddy to attend school. Kids can develop Separation Anxiety Disorder and it isn’t simply a matter of a child being reluctant to attend school for the first time.
The primary feature of this disorder is excessive anxiety about being apart from the home or people to whom the person is attached; usually the primary caregiver. The anxiety is above what is expected for the individual’s developmental level. A diagnosis of Separation Anxiety Disorder further requires that the anxiety be present for at least four weeks and was present before the age of 18; and the anxiety significantly impairs functioning in social or academic arenas.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
Symptoms of this mental disorder are manifested in the behavior and thoughts of children. Some common symptoms in kids include:
- Refusing to go to school
- Refusing to go to sleep
- Clinging to primary caregivers
- Psychosomatic ailments such as stomach aches or headaches
- Excessive worry about the safety of caregivers
- Fear that caregivers are going to die or not come back
- Nightmares revolving around the safety of caregivers and the individuals
In some cases, children may even shadow their parents around the house; not feeling comfortable in a room alone. These kids often find excuses not to go on errands; and may climb into their parents’ or significant other such as a sibling’s beds in the middle of the night; or even sleep outside the bedroom door if entry into the bedroom is barred. They are reluctant or refuse to go to a friend’s house for a sleepover; some kids may not even be willing to visit a friend’s home.
Treatment for Separation Anxiety
There are ways to help children with separation before it gets to the point of needing professional help. It is beneficial to help kids develop trust by practicing separation. Toddlers learn if they move away from the caregiver; when they come back the caregiver is still there. They test this over and over until they are able to wander out of the sight of the caregiver. Helping children develop this sense of trust is crucial to their healthy development. Other ways to help kids overcome separation anxiety include:
- Scheduling the separation after naps and meals—kids are more vulnerable when tired and hungry
- Establishing a “good-bye routine”
- Keeping the environment familiar—this may mean letting a child take a favorite toy to school or asking the school to accommodate a “phone home” plan
- Being consistent
- Leaving without making a big deal about it
- Setting limits
- Minimizing the viewing of scary television shows or movies
- Letting the child talk about the feelings, fears and concerns and validating those feelings
- Anticipating difficulties and being proactive rather than reactive
Using these strategies can reduce the anxiety disorder in many children. It can be helpful for parents to educate themselves about separation anxiety if they suspect their child may be suffering from this. Parents need to stay calm and supportive with their kids.
Some individuals may need the help of professionals. Therapists use different techniques in their practices and it is important for parents to find a therapist whose style is acceptable. Therapists who work with children and families often use play therapy to help kids overcome their difficulties.
Separation anxiety is very real to the children and parents who experience it. Symptoms vary depending upon the intensity of the anxiety. Parents may help reduce the anxiety in their kids by trying some of the offered strategies in this article
The copyright of the article Symptoms and Treatment of Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.