Written by: Cally Worden
As parents you are the most important people in the world of your children. So it’s natural that when there is a need to be apart from them for a time they will experience separation anxiety. This is a recognised response in young children, and is completely normal. For most children, with understanding, time and a few carefully applied coping strategies separation anxiety will fade naturally as they get older and more confident in their own sense of self. In a few cases, however, separation anxiety in children becomes more acute, and can interfere in your child’s life outside the home. If this persists you may need to seek expert help, but there is still much you can as parents to reduce the effects.
What’s Normal – and What’s Not
Separation Anxiety generally begins any time from 9 months old, as the growing baby starts to become aware that they are a separate being from their parents. It may peak at around 18 months old and then taper off, making the odd reappearance until around the age of 4. Children need to express their anxiety at being separated from you, and in babies and younger kids crying, clinginess and tantrums are all healthy ways for them to do that. Patience, consistency, and firm limits help most children to navigate their intense emotions, and ease the upset.
When separation anxiety continues much beyond the age of four, and is frequent and intense, it can start to interfere with your child’s schooling, activities, and ability to establish friendships. This is not normal, and may be a symptom of separation anxiety, for which your child may need professional help.
Strategies for easing normal Separation Anxiety for your Child
- Ease them in gently, by leaving them for brief periods with a carer at first, and gradually increasing the length of time
- Hungry and tired children are more susceptible to separation anxiety, so make sure wherever possible that you schedule mealtimes and naps to help
- Have a short and simple “Goodbye” ritual, like a hug, kiss and a wave, that you do every time you leave, and don’t delay
- Keep surroundings familiar for your child when possible, and stay with them a little to familiarise them with new places if they have to be left away from home. Your presence and okay-ness in a space will give them comfort when you are gone
- Maintain consistency with your caregiver wherever possible
- Limit exposure to TV, and any images that may be scary for your child to avoid creating a general fearfulness
- Don’t give in to your child if the separation is difficult. It is important to establish limits and boundaries with confidence.
These strategies work in the majority of cases, and when they don’t, it may be time to seek help.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder
Prolonged, intense fears that keep your child from engaging in normal activities are the red flags of Separation Anxiety Disorder. Look out for these common symptoms:
- Fear that something dreadful will happen to their primary caregiver
- Concern that an unpredictable event may make the separation permanent
- Nightmares about separation
- Refusal to go to school, or outside home at all
- A reluctance to go to sleep for fear of separation or nightmares
- Complaints of illness, such as headache or tummy ache
- Physical clinging to the caregiver
The condition occurs because the child feels unsafe in some way. Unexpected changes in routine, moving bedrooms, changing from a cot to a big bed, and moving house can all contribute to feelings of anxiety in your child. Less obvious causes can be in the form of an over-protective parent, or the recent loss of a loved one or cherished pet.
Helping Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder
Taking steps to help your child feel safer can work wonders. Listening to and respecting your child’s feelings will help them to share their fears and feel less isolated.¬† Gentle reminders of successful separations can help too. Providing consistency and a familiar pattern to your child’s day contributes to a sense of stability for them, and leading by example in not getting distressed yourself at the moment of separation is equally important.
If all else fails, then speak to your GP about getting professional help to assist your child in managing their fears, and helping them to develop into confident and capable adults. Separation Anxiety Disorder is a recognised condition, and there are well established practices for helping a child through it that have proved to be highly successful.