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Separation Anxiety – a guideline for parents

Separation Anxiety – a guideline for parents

By Ashley Jay

Separation Anxiety in Children

Separation anxiety is a universal developmental occurrence. From about the age of 7 months through to preschool years almost all children experience anxiety when they are separated from their parents or others with whom they share close relationships with. In fact a marked lack of separation anxiety at these ages may suggest other problems, as anxiety from being separated indicates an awareness for children as it is a human response that has survival value.

Separation anxiety is normal in infants, pre-school aged children and primary school aged children who are entering a school for the first time. Many children display intense or persistent fear, shyness or social withdrawal when faced with unfamiliar settings or people or when there have been or are about to be major changes occurring in their lives.

When is Separation Anxiety considered a disorder?

It is considered a disorder when a child displays excessive anxiety long after the age when it is typical or expected. When it persists for an extended period of time and is severe enough to interfere with normal daily routines such as attending school, participating in recreational activities and interfering with overall functioning then it is considered a problem. The child will typically display age inappropriate, excessive and disabling anxiety about being apart from their parents, away from home or other familiar situations. The overt symptoms to look out for include:

• School refusal

• Fears and distress on separation

• Repeated physical complaints (headaches, tummy aches) when separation is anticipated.

• Nightmares relating to separation issues.

• Excessive & persistent worry about losing a parent or caregiver

• Excessive & persistent worry that harm will come to a parent, caregiver or the child

• Excessive & persistent worry that an untoward event (getting lost, kidnapped) will lead to separation from parent or caregiver.

• Persistent fear of being without parents or caregivers at home or in other settings.

• Persistent reluctance to go to sleep without being near a parent or caregiver or

  • Excessive fear about sleeping away from home when age appropriate

Separation anxiety and the parental relationship

Invested parents want the best for their child both physically and emotionally. However, it also important to be aware of some unconscious parental anxiety which without intending to, may be projected onto children from their parents. This is common in parents who are passionate about being  ‘good parents’ and do not want to miss out on anything concerning their child’s development. This is natural in parents, particularly first time parents.

However parents often focus on being ‘perfect parents’ which may actually stop the child from experiencing disappointment and frustration. Learning about these states is vital for a child’s development as it helps them develop frustration tolerance which is important for social and personal maturity and enhancement. Parents also need to help their children to tolerate frustration which is a very real part of growing up and they cannot do this if mom and dad are always there to soothe them.

In essence children also need to experience some parental ‘failure’ as such from time to time where mom and dad are not always there to appease them. Situations such as when children begin attending nursery school or primary school, will require them to draw on internal coping mechanisms for when they feel uncertain or anxious as well as the fact that that they will have to socialize with other children in a different environment and be reliant on other adults in the form of school staff for support.

Helping children to build up their frustration tolerance whilst they are young and often at home; will help to prepare them for when they venture into alternative settings. As difficult as this process of experiencing difficult feelings may be, it is vital for children to experience these feelings on occasion in order for them to develop a healthy sense of independence and the ability to self soothe when mom and dad are not there.

Some suggestions to help with Separation Anxiety:

When it comes to setting up situations for children where mom and dad will not be present such as play dates, baby sitting or going to school, the following suggestions may be helpful:

• Talk to your child about the arrangement in advance and encourage them to talk about what the experience may be like. Answer any of the questions that he/she may have and be sure to explain to them that the separation is only for a little while and that you will always return. If a time is set then be sure to be punctual so as not to cause further anxiety.

• Try to establish a good-bye routine. Young children flourish within routines and by giving them something they can get used to, they are more likely to separate when need be. It might be helpful to come up with a few things to do each time you say good bye to your child. This may include: a special hand shake, a high five, kiss on the nose. Whatever it is, make sure to make it something special between you and your child and make sure to repeat it every time.

• The best way to cope with separation anxiety is to make the goodbye quick and to never let your child see that their distress is affecting you. The reality is that most children settle down a little while after the parent has left and as time goes by the tears will come to an end. It must be something that both your child and mom and dad work through together.

• Be prepared for possible regression in their behaviour if your child is at home for a few days due to illness or a holiday. It is normal for Separation Anxiety to return after an absence, but this should only be temporary and should disappear once they become used to the routine once again.

• Give your child something to look forward to. With situations like pre-school or play dates, make it a gradual process where mom or dad attend the first few times with them so they can see how much fun it is. Once they recognize the situation they will more likely be ready to be with others on their own and feel more settled and relaxed.

• If your child displays intense shyness, avoid labelling them as shy. The more one talks about it and gives it a name, the more they may perceive that there is something wrong with them when there is not. Acknowledge that it is part of their personality but try not to place too much emphasis on it.

• When your child is in a situation where mom and dad cannot be there with him (school, play date) it may be helpful to send them with a small reminder of home like a photo, a favourite blanket or stuffed animal. This will act as a transitional object for your child and provide them with a sense of comfort.

If your child’s Separation Anxiety is excessive and persistent then it is recommended that you consult a professional for an emotional assessment. An educational psychologist who is trained in emotional assessments and play therapy would be a suggested recommendation.