Separation Anxiety is normal for small children and may occur at different times, and at different ages. There is a difference between sporadic, more “normal” Separation Anxiety, lasting a few days, and more severe diagnosable Separation Anxiety Disorder, which can last for four weeks or more. Separation Anxiety Disorder occurs when there is an excessive fear that harm will befall their attachment person, excessive fear of being alone, nightmares about separation, anxiety about sleeping, fear of being separated from the attachment figure, and physical complaints when separation occurs, or even before separation occurs. When these symptoms become more pervasive and affect a child’s ability to do school and function overall, it can become a diagnosable disorder (3).
Frequently separation anxiety develops after a distressing event, especially the loss of a loved one, or a divorce (2). Some other causes may include change in environment or having an over protective or anxious parent (1).
In more severe cases, separation anxiety is demonstrated by signs that a child is experiencing trauma, such as extreme aggression or the child withdrawing. Other red flags for trauma exposure include obvious changes in eating, sleeping and toileting. These symptoms could be explained by many factors, however if you’re concerned, seek professional help.
With “normal” Separation Anxiety there are several techniques:
- The attachment figure needs to stay regulated. Sometimes it is the anxiety of the attachment figure that can compound the issue.
- Validating the child’s feelings and seeking to understand why they have concerns with separation is important along with gently setting firm and consistent boundaries.
- If the child separates more easily from one caretaker than the other, then having that caretaker drop off the child at school or day care could be beneficial.
- Also practicing at home with transitional objects (objects that can be taken from home to the stressful location) or relaxation techniques such as breathing or progressive muscle relaxation techniques (such as making tightened fists and then relaxing) can be helpful also.
- When separation time comes, low energy from the attachment figure and short exchanges is optimal.
- Generally having predictability in the child’s schedule and having the child know ahead of time the separation plan it best. Having the child have as much choice as possible is also recommended.
Note: If more pervasive anxiety symptoms such fear of losing a caretaker when separated continues, then professional help maybe needed.
Activities for Younger Children:
- Practice listening and really trying to understand why the child has concerns. Validate the feelings although that does not change the outcome, I.E. “You really don’t want to go to school…. it is hard to do things that make us scared”.
- Practice different relaxation techniques such as breathing exercises.
- Find a heart rock together than can be put in their pocket so the child can slowly blow their worries into it and “rub out” of the rock positive feelings, calmness, or safety.
Activities for Teens:
- It is especially important to understand why they are hesitating about going to school. A recent local Sanpete County survey was conducted and youth reported feeling that their parents did not know that they where struggling with different issues.
- Create a safe place or person at the school.
- Spend quality time with the youth other times.
References and resources:
(2) Hurst, Nancy. https://www.theravive.com/therapedia/separation-anxiety-disorder-dsm–5-309.21-(f93.0 **(See references for more resources and articles.)
(3) American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
(4) Karst, Patrice. (2000). The Invisible String. Camarillo, CA: DeVorss & Company, Publishers.