Useful tools, Wellbeing

What is separation anxiety in children

09 December, 2021

Baby and Educator

‘Separation anxiety’ is a term that is bandied around a lot, whether it’s a pet who whines when its owner leaves or a grown-up who constantly misses their significant other. But did you know that separation anxiety in kids can actually be a type of mental health issue?

Anxiety for kids is relatively normal – many children will be clingy and concerned if they are separated from their family, particularly their parents. It’s particularly normal in very young children, often starting from around eight months of age when babies develop object permanence and peaking at around the 14 to 18-month mark.

In early childhood, the classic signs of separation anxiety for kids – think crying, tantrums, and clinginess – are actually really normal, healthy reactions to separation. A severe increase in the timing or intensity of these reactions, however, could point to Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD). More on that in a moment.


How to ease separation anxiety

General separation anxiety is common, but can also be disruptive to both you and your child. Thankfully, there are some tried and true ways to ease it – though note that, of course, every child is different. Wondering how to deal with separation anxiety in kids? Here are a few ideas…

  1. Practice separation by regularly leaving your child with a relative or caregiver for a short period of time
  2. Develop a short, simple goodbye ritual to reassure your child and help them understand that, as always, you will return
  3. But leave without fanfare, as drawn-out goodbyes can make the event seem like a bigger deal than it is
  4. Keep surroundings familiar by having a caregiver come to your home or having your child bring a favourite toy or object from home
  5. Follow through on promises by returning when you said you would
  6. Foster self-esteem in other ways to help your child feel more confident when you are gone


What is separation anxiety disorder in children

As we mentioned before, separation anxiety is usually normal – when the symptoms become severe, however, it could be a sign to seek professional help. Studies have determined that SAD is caused by both biological and environmental factors, meaning children may inherit or learn their anxious tendencies from one or both parents. A traumatic event might also trigger SAD.


Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder

The signs of SAD are more severe in their intensity and frequency than general signs of separation anxiety. They can range from muscle and stomach aches to excessive worry about the safety of whereabouts of a family member, and include…

  1. Clinging to parents
  2. Extreme and severe crying
  3. Refusal to do things that require separation
  4. Physical illness, such as headaches or vomiting
  5. Violent, emotional temper tantrums
  6. Refusal to go to school
  7. Poor school performance
  8. Failure to interact healthily with other children
  9. Refusing to sleep alone
  10. Nightmare


How to help a child with Separation Anxiety Disorder

As a parent, you have an important role to play when it comes to your child’s SAD. It is important that you educate yourself on the intricacies of the disorder, talk openly with your child about the issue, work to maintain your own calmness and happiness, establish consistent patterns, set limits, and offer choices to help your child feel in control. Like with many mental health disorders, a child with SAD may also require professional treatment like:

  • Cognitive behavioural therapy to help them better learn how to handle their anxiety and the situations that trigger it;
  • Medicines like antidepressants and antianxiety medications;
  • Family therapy, where parents play an involved role in treatment;
  • School input, where the school also plays a role in treatment.


When to seek professional help

The most extreme symptoms like intense panic or temper tantrums when you leave your child, fear and reluctance to be alone, frequent aches, physical complaints or even vomiting are clear signs to seek professional help. While little is known about how to prevent SAD, experts suggest seeking an evaluation as soon as you notice related signs and symptoms in your child. Early treatment can help to lessen the severity of the disorder and improve your child’s quality of life.

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