The words “separation anxiety” are often used during the early toddler years.
The words “separation anxiety” are often used during the early toddler years. As toddlers become more aware of their surroundings and begin to understand the world around them, they struggle to separate from their caregivers.
It can be difficult as a parent or caregiver to watch, but this part of childhood development is fairly common and there are ways to help ease these transitions.
It is almost expected that young children or babies will experience separation anxiety. What parents aren’t always prepared for is the return of separation anxiety in “big kids.” Both school-age children and adolescents can struggle with separation anxiety and, in some cases, it can result in Separation Anxiety Disorder.
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.
What is Separation Anxiety Disorder?
While a few tears at drop off and after school meltdowns are fairly common among children and should not raise red flags, symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder are a cause for concern. School refusal, sleep disturbance, and excessive distress when faced with separation can negatively affect a child’s day-to-day living.
The defining feature of Separation Anxiety Disorder is excessive fear or anxiety concerning the separation from home or attachment figures. This fear or anxiety exceeds what is to be expected of the individual given his/her developmental level.
What are the symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder?
- Recurrent excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or attachment figures (parents or other caregivers)
- Persistent and excessive worry about losing an attachment figure or possible harm to them by illness, accident, disasters, or death
- Persistent worry about experiencing an unexpected separation from an attachment figure (kidnapping, accident, becoming ill)
- Refusal to go out or away from home, including to school or other activities, due to fear of separation
- Excessive fear of being alone or without attachment figures
- Refusal to sleep away from home or go to sleep without being near an attachment figure
- Nightmares about separation
- Physical complaints including headaches, stomachaches, and/or vomiting when away from attachment figures
- Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder in children and adolescents last for at least four weeks and cause significant distress. School refusal is common with children and adolescents struggling with the disorder and can result in poor school attendance and poor academic functioning.
- Separation Anxiety Disorder can also impair social relationships and family relationships.
Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder tend to shadow parents around the house, have difficulty playing or being alone, and have difficulty at bedtime. They often require a parent or caregiver to stay with them when they fall asleep and make their way into the parents’ bedroom when they wake during the night.
What can you do to help?
- There are things parents can do to help children and adolescents learn to manage their anxious feelings. Parent support plays a key role in helping kids learn to cope independently.
- Try these strategies at home to help your child succeed outside of the home:
- Make a plan to help your child transition to school in the morning (arrive early, act as the teacher’s helper before the other kids arrive, get some exercise on the playground before the bell rings)
- Help your child reframe anxious thoughts by coming up with a list of positive thoughts (it even helps to write these on cards and put them in the backpack)
- Write daily lunchbox notes that include positive phrases
- Avoid overscheduling. Focus on playtime, downtime, and healthy sleep habits
- Alert your child to changes in routine ahead of time
- Empathize with your child and comment on progress made
Try and remember, especially during the hard days that this is only temporary. Your child will not have this forever and make sure you as the parent or caregiver has the right support to help you help them.
Laura Doyle, Mum of 4. Kyle 9, Noa Belle 4, Briar 2 and Milla 12 months. Breastfeeder, co-sleeper, coffee drinker. Staying positive and inspired by the chaos of it all. Follow her on Instagram.