Recognizing and Addressing Separation Anxiety in Your Child

Recognizing and Addressing Separation Anxiety in Your Child

Being a parent is an incredibly rewarding, challenging, bewildering part of life. And you wouldn’t have it any other way. Even so, the first time you leave your child with a friend or drop him off at pre-school can be heart-wrenching. You’ve been together every single day and night since he was born and let’s face it; many parents are just as broken up as their three-year-old.

However, when a child exhibits more than the “normal” level of angst, there could be a concerning separation anxiety issue in the works. Let’s look closer at this common component of childhood and how to best address it in your family.

Separation Anxiety Explained

While it is quite normal for toddler-age children to be anxious when separated from their parents, if the behavior persists into school-age years the child has most likely developed separation anxiety disorder (SAD). Typical worries about being apart from their parents cling to the child long after the separation.

For example, many children develop fears that some kind of harm will come to their family; perhaps a car accident or a terrible injury. The child may think she will be hurt or if her parents are late picking her up, she could have a very real belief in her mind that they abandoned her.

Anxious children with cell phone access can make the situation far worse by calling or texting their parents multiple times a day just to receive that short moment of reunion, even if it is only through a device.

SAD Has Its Place in Childhood Development, if it stays in Place

Although it is very difficult to handle in the moment, separation anxiety is normal in traditional stages of development and it is not a bad, terrible thing that must be eliminated at all costs. A very young child has no idea how to navigate the great big world around them, much less understand and accept being parted from the people who have always been there, taking care of them.

As children grow and develop mentally, it ideally gets easier to handle these new situations. But for children with persistent anxiety challenges, it simply doesn’t get easier and invades many parts of their lives.

An especially difficult time saying goodbye at the bus stop might evolve into full-on panic attacks. Or, if a child manages to get through the initial physical separation, mental distress kicks in and presents a significant barrier to participating in everyday activities. The child might be petrified about starting school and being “alone” with all those other kids or if he crosses the threshold to school, he might shy away from traditional learning activities, playing sports, or even attending a classmate’s birthday party. 

Separation Anxiety in the Home

Of additional concern is the element of separation anxiety not being limited to outside locations. Anxiety and over attachment can also be present at home, where some children follow one or both parents everywhere they go in the house or are very afraid to be left alone in their rooms at night.

They have a hard time sleeping and often sneak into their parents’ bed because it is a comfortable and safe place. When visitors stop by, anxious children will often cling to a parent like a shield, hiding behind familiar safety, or they might flee and hide in another room altogether until the distress of being parted from their parents becomes too great.

How to Recognize Separation Anxiety

Several common behaviors are typically present in children with SAD and recognizing the signs as a parent is tremendously helpful in managing the issue.

  1. Consistently asking to be picked up from school instead of riding the bus. Skipping out on school or social activities.
  2. Difficulty falling asleep, afraid to sleep alone, or can’t sleep without a parent nearby.
  3. Struggles with goodbyes.
  4. Complains of health issues like headaches or stomachaches.

How to Handle It

With some determination and care, there are proven steps to take to ease separation anxiety and help your child gain confidence, including:

  • Practice separation in small doses.
  • Develop and practice brevity with goodbyes
  • Set up a routine and use it daily.
  • Praise your child regularly as she improves with separation.
  • Don’t stall during goodbyes. Keep it short and sweet.
  • Don’t give in with scenarios such as sleeping in your bed.
  • Try to make new surroundings familiar.

For more information on separation anxiety or to discuss your options, contact The Attach Place today at (916) 403-0588.

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