Separation anxiety is a normal reaction, in young children, when a parent has to say “good-bye” or is away from the child’s environment. As a parent the reaction can be difficult to watch, but rest assured that the child’s reaction is within typical developmental behaviors. However, there are ways to relieve the stress to the child by teaching them adaptive coping strategies.
Normal separation anxiety usually occurs in early childhood but can vary from child to child. It can happen before a child’s first birthday and continue on into preschool years, and beyond. It is characterized by crying, temper tantrums, and a persistence to stay close to the parent. Some anxious moments can occur even when a child is older, but it can be eased through patience, consistency, and limit setting.
With normal separation anxiety, there are strategies that a parent can incorporate in everyday routines to relieve a child’s fears and make him or her feel protected. Steps that are helpful with normal separation anxiety include:
– Practice leaving your child with a caregiver for short periods of time and at closer distances from your home.
– Practice leaving infants or very young children with a caregiver after naps or feeding schedules. Babies are more prone to feel separation anxiety when they are tired or hungry.
– Practice making different surroundings familiar to a child. Caregivers should come to your home but if that is not possible, allow your child to bring a favorite item from home, to give him or her a sense of the familiarity when in a different environment.
– Say goodbye to your child with a special sign, kiss or wave that you use every time you have to leave your home or other location. This provides a loving consistency and grounding that is communicated in a reassuring way.
– Make you exit without a lot of fanfare. Simply tell your child that you are leaving and that you will be back and do so without stalling or long explanations as to why you’re leaving.
– Hire a caregiver who is consistent and understands the situation with your child’s separation anxiety. If you do hire a caregiver, try to keep the same person employed.
– Restrict yourself and your child from scary television programs, movies, games and other entertainment that might be frightening or create insecure feelings in your child.
– Continue to reassure your child that he or she will be fine, that you have a schedule to keep but that you will return at the usual time. Do not give into crying, tantrums and other behaviors that delay responsibilities towards work, appointments and other activities.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
If anxieties continue to persist to the point that normal routines like school, friendships and other relationships and activities are hindered, seek a professional consult with a child psychologist.
The intensity of a child’s fear is important when considering if the separation anxiety is typical or a diagnosable disorder. Children that have separation anxiety disorder may become worked up at just the thought of being separated from their parents. They may also feign sickness to avoid going to school, playing with friends or participating in everyday activities.
When indicators are severe and significantly impact daily functioning a professional consult should be sought. Trained experts will incorporate information from home, school, and clinical assessments and observations when making a diagnosis and to rule out other possible reasons for the child’s behaviors.
If the problem is diagnosed as a disorder, therapies will be advised that include:
– talk therapy
– play therapy
– family counseling
– school counseling
– medication – used in combination with overall therapies
Separation anxiety does not have to develop into a disorder or stress in a family, using the right strategies and problem solving techniques can prevent typical development from becoming a disorder.