Separation Anxiety in Children
“Separation Anxiety” typically refers to young children becoming upset when they are separated from their caregivers. A young child who clings to mom’s leg when they are dropped off at daycare, or screaming when they are left with grandparents for an afternoon. It is heart-wrenching to see your child crying when you are trying to leave, especially when transitions like this seemed easy before.
As they get older, toddlers start to become more aware of their world and have a hard time separating from their parents. They begin to realize you are leaving. This is a normal part of a child’s development and parents are able to work on comforting them during these transitions.
What’s not as common, though, is when separation anxiety returns in school-aged “big kids.” Children in elementary school, as well as middle and high school, can show symptoms of separation anxiety.
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Separation Anxiety Disorder is seen in 4% of children and 1.6% of adolescents, making it the most prevalent anxiety disorder among children under the age of 12.
So how can parents recognize the difference between what’s normal separation anxiety and what is cause for concern and may need some intervention by a mental health professional?
Here are some common signs of Separation Anxiety Disorder in children and adolescents.
- Recurrent and excessive distress when the child anticipates being separated from home or a parent.
- Persistent and excessive worry about losing a parent. This could be excessive worry and distress about the parent being hurt, in an accident, dying, while they are apart.
- Refusing to go to school or other activities due to fear of being separated from a parent.
- Excessive fear of being alone without their parent.
- Refusing to sleep away from home or refusing to sleep without being near a parent.
- Experiencing nightmares about separation from a parent.
- Physical complaints while away from caregivers, such as stomach pain, vomiting and/or headaches. Often, students will spend a lot of time with the school nurse complaining of physical symptoms.
School refusal is common when a student has separation anxiety. Refusing to go to school can lead to poor attendance, trouble with truancy and struggling academic performance due to falling behind in school.
Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder will often have a lot of difficulty at bedtime. They may need their parent with them while they fall asleep, refuse to sleep in their own bed or go in their parent’s room during the night.
You can help your child at home by:
- Giving them a heads-up when the schedule or routine is changing.
- Making a plan with your child and the school for how they will transition in the morning. This could be designating a check-in person in the mornings, having a special job for a teacher when they get to school, arriving early before the other students get there, etc.)
- Don’t over-schedule the child with activities. Allow time to play, relax, and unwind.
- Write notes and leave them in your child’s backpack or lunch box with positive, encouraging messages. Younger children may like to keep a picture of you in their pocket, backpack, or in their desk.
- Empathize with your child and encourage them by noticing their progress.
If you notice these distressing symptoms in your child, seek the help of a therapist who specializes in anxiety disorders. The earlier you can intervene and get professional help, the better. Play Therapy, Family Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and EMDR therapy are all effective approaches to treating separation anxiety in children.
Our therapists are highly skilled in working with children, adolescents, and families and offer a diverse array of services to meet the needs of you and your family! The majority of our therapists are Level II EMDR trained as well!
Let’s connect! Call us today to schedule an appointment.
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Cara Strickland, MS, LMFT, EMDR
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist