Is it a phase or is this a serious problem?
Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage which starts around 6 months of age until around age 2. As the child grows and matures and begins to feel safe and independent the anxiety a child feels decreases.
Separation anxiety is about your child feeling safe, secure and is based in fear. It may become problematic when the child’s developmental stages continue but the child remains anxious when you leave the room and can become pervasive as the child grows.
If a child continues with separation anxiety past the typical age of 2 to 3 years of age then it's classified as a disorder. Separation anxiety disorder, if not treated in childhood, can continue into adulthood.
Separation anxiety creates anxiety for the parents too as they feel helpless to help their child feel safe and secure when out in the world, or out of the room.
Signs of separation anxiety
Child does not want to leave parent’s side for fear that something bad may happen to the parent
Crying when being dropped off
Begging and pleading for parent to not leave or for the parent to take the child with them
Throwing temper tantrums when being dropped off
Refusing to go to school
Refusing to attend sleepovers or social functions without parent
Complaining of headaches, stomach ache or not feeling good
Child feels the need to constantly check on parent for fear something bad is going to happen
Fear parent will never return
These symptoms will worsen if not treated in childhood.
What causes separation anxiety?
Causes of Separation anxiety disorder are unknown right now, but research is beginning to show that some risk factors are involved.
The risk factors are, genetic traits, parenting styles, and traumatic childhood experiences.
If one parent, both parents, or grandparents have anxiety issues then a child could suffer from anxiety issues. The connection is unclear but research continues to search for the connection.
A parent that is over involved, overly anxious, intrusive, or does not allow the child autonomy can foster separation anxiety.
Childhood traumas such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, death, divorce, fighting parents, custody battles where the child is not shielded, and the sudden removal of a parent or authority figure from the child's life create uncertainty for the child.
How to help your child through anxiety disorder
If you can find what is causing your child to feel afraid or insecure then this will help you know how and when anxiety is a problem for your child.
Here are some ways to combat separation anxiety disorder.
Keep your own anxiety under control. Your child may pick up and feed off of your anxiety, especially when you are leaving your child in someone else's custody. Your anxiety may inadvertently tell your child that you do not trust leaving him/her with the caregiver.
Avoid fighting in front of your child. Disputes happen but a child feels unsafe and fearful when adults argue and fight. If an argument does occur in front of the child both adults need to reassure the child that the child is safe and is not at fault.
Avoid showing your frustration about your child's anxiety in front of your child. This will make your child feel like they are not supposed to have fears and then may feel ashamed of being afraid.
Take your child's anxiety serious. To the child the fear is real, scary, and terrifying.
Be honest with your child. Avoid tell them you will be back soon. Soon to him is not the same as soon to you. If possible give a specific time and teach your child to recognize time by using a clock that can help your child tell the time such as colors or shapes like the ones here.
If your child is too young to learn to read a clock by shapes or colors then help them to identify the time of the day by their daily activity such as "after the afternoon snack mommy will pick you up from daycare".
If you are going to be late you can call the daycare and ask them to tell your child you are running late so that your child is aware you have not forgotten about them.
Don't sneak out when your child is unaware. This will perpetuate the problem and the child will learn not to trust you.
Be firm but empathetic when leaving your child. Let them know you understand their feelings but you still have to go.
Praise your child when you return so the child can feel a sense of accomplishment, even if your child threw a tantrum when you left, they lasted the day without you! Find any success to praise will help foster security.
Set goals with your child. If your child threw a tantrum for the 1st hour of school see if you can work with the teachers to set a goal of 45 minutes, then 30 minutes and continue to progress. Reward your child when they meet or exceed the goal! Using a
is a great way for your child to see progress and strive to earn those fun stickers. Positive reward is much more effective than negative punishment.
Avoid scolding or punishing your child if he did not meet the goal for the same reasons stated above. Come up with an "Oh well" statement such as "oh well, we can try again tomorrow". The "oh well" statement helps your child see that there's another chance to work on the goal and not see themselves as a failure.
Children's safety and security waivers depending on what is going on around him. It's not uncommon to make a lot of progress for weeks and then have a set back or stall in progress. This is normal and expected. You may need to start over but that is okay!
Is it time to bring in the expert?
If the above advice has proven to be unsuccessful don't give up hope! Seek the advice of a marriage and family therapist that specialize in separation anxiety. This can relieve pressure from you and help you to come up with other ideas to help your child.
Here are several of my favorite resources
Have a blessed and balanced day!
Melissa Smith is an LMFT in the state of Kentucky. To find out more about her click here.
Live. Life. Balanced.Today is a blog written by licensed marriage and family therapist.
For more information about counseling go to www.LifeInMotionKentucky.com