Separation Anxiety In Children - How To Handle & When To Worry

All children feel some anxiety at different ages. Separation anxiety is a common phenomenon that occurs at different ages or is induced by circumstances at an older age. In general, the clingy phase is the temporary that starts around the age of 7 months and continues till toddlerhood for 3 to 4 years.

Separation Anxiety is the fear of losing or separation from parents or the primary caregiver, as the young children rely on them wholly. 

Just because of the word "Anxiety", separation anxiety should not be considered in the negative context. On the contrary, it is a significant milestone that your child recognizes their environment and are safe with their loved ones or caregivers.

Separation anxiety can also occur in teenagers or adolescents who leave for college or high school. 

When the separation anxiety lasts too long, reoccurs frequently or shows a severe reaction from the child, it is called separation anxiety disorder (SAD). SAD needs to be treated medically.

How to recognize separation anxiety?

Here is a list of symptoms for you to understand what do typical separation anxiety symptoms look like.

1. Throwing tantrums when saying goodbye to the parent or caregiver.

2. Become too clingy or melt down when they know the parents are about to leave.

3. Getting restless when the parent goes out of the room or out of sight, even for a few minutes.

4. Crying excessive when they see their parents leaving them at home, with a caregiver or dropping them off at school. But get back to normal after a few seconds once they are gone.

How to manage Regular separation anxiety?

1. Build trust by telling them the reality if they are older enough to understand.

2. Practise a few minutes or hours of separation in case of infants to gradually prepare them. 

3. Give them favourite toys, books or anything that they like to divert their mind from the anxiety or the thought of getting separated from the primary caregivers.

4. Tell them the time when you will return, and while they are adjusting, make sure you return on time promised, to help them gain confidence that the parents will return.

5. In the case of preschoolers, ask permission of the teacher if you can stay back with your child for the initial days for a short time for a smoother transition of the child. Once they are accustomed to the new setup, they will willingly say goodbye.

6. Make goodbyes positive and reunions even happier. This makes the kids confident and learns an important lesson of self-independence. 

What is Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)?

Extreme reactions of separation anxiety such as inconsolable crying, high temper, and unrealistic fear lasting for more than a few weeks in toddlers above 3 years of age need to be observed and monitored. This could be a sign of SAD. As the children grow up, they understand the separation and that the person does not cease to exist when they are not in front of their eyes. If the child of any age, especially those above 3 years of age, continuously overreacts on separation, or the behaviour starts to interfere with their ability to perform daily tasks, discuss this with your doctor for proper diagnosis.

Here are some symptoms that define SAD and help to differentiate between normal separation anxiety and SAD.

1. Repeated, long term distress about separation from parents or caregivers or being away from home.

2. Constant panic about losing the parents to some illness disaster.

3. Bedwetting

4. A perpetual state of worry about being separated from the parent by getting kidnapped or lost in the marketplace.

5. Not ready to sleep in separate rooms or beds.

6. Nightmares about the above situations disrupt sleep or cause insomnia.

7. Start of physical symptoms such as headache, stomach ache.

8. Reluctance to the separation starts to affect school attendance and academic performance.

9. Being too clingy even when the parents are around or if it is age-inappropriate.

10. Withdrawal from socializing with friends or family.

What causes SAD?

SAD is a mental health problem that needs to be acknowledged and managed timely. The causes for SAD are not definitive because it is an issue related to mental health. There could be innumerable accountable or non-accountable causes that trigger SAD. Some common reasons for SAD are given below.

1. Losing a close person or primary caregiver in a sudden event.

2. When parents have anxiety issues, it is likely to pass on to the child. 

3. A traumatic incident in past when the child was left alone or in the absence of a primary caregiver.

4. A sudden change of environment, such as school, house, neighbourhood. 

5. Natural disasters or a medical condition causing separation from a parent.

6. Stressful life situations such as divorce, death of a pet, or losing a friend.

SAD could develop without cause as well as some kids may be more prone to emotional events in life. The catch is to identify and treat it systematically.

How to Treat and Respond to SAD?

Talk to your paediatric if you have concerns about separation anxiety in children older than 3 years of age that lasts for more than 4 weeks.

CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy)

Treating SAD involves psychotherapy, counselling and medication (if the symptoms are severe). 

CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) form of psychotherapy that helps to face and manage fears of obscurity and separation. It also helps to create confidence for practising self-independence with emotional support from the parents. The therapist and parents have to work jointly to overcome the anxiety in children. The therapist will help you to identify the triggers and how to prevent/manage them.

Family

Family plays a very influential role in the treatment of separation anxiety disorder. Understanding the fear and being compassionate towards the child is the first approach for effective treatment. Practise separation while leaving the child with a caregiver/parent the child trusts. It is an effective way to keep the fear at bay and prove that you will come back to the child, and gradually the fear will go away. 

Be calm and make a specific goodbye ritual to bring consistency because consistency develops confidence. 

If you have to hire a caregiver, keep them for long-term employment so that the children have a trustworthy bond with them and reduce fear of parents not being around.

Alert your child about changes in routine beforehand in a subtle way to keep them from panicking too much.

Maintaining the overall health of the children by way of healthy eating, regular exercising, sleeping well, positivity at home is significant to cope with stress and anxiety. A healthy mind and body help to think clearly. 

Separation anxiety or SAD can cause stress and frustration in parents, especially when both the parents or caregivers are working. Managing work and the needs of the child becomes a tough fight. However, an aggressive or impatient attitude will only augment the anxiety than reducing it. Eventually, patience is the key.

Drop your questions below for answers by fellow parents. 

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