What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in children is characterised by a fear of being parted from parents or caregivers. It is a common and normal fear in children and is considered developmentally appropriate up to two years of age. Separation anxiety can start in children as young as 9 months old and peaks in babies between 14 and 18 months of age. Usually this anxiety fades as children grow up and gain independence, confidence and start school. However, children with Separation Anxiety Disorder experience anxiety separating from their parents to a more extreme degree compared to their same aged peers. Often these children complain about being unwell, make frequent trips to the nurse’s office, and attempt to avoid school, school camps, and sleepovers.
Separation anxiety can significantly impact children’s normal activities, as they become isolated from their peers and experience difficulties developing and maintaining friendships. Their difficulty separating can also lead these children to miss out on opportunities to learn and engage in new activities.
Does your child:
- Complain of feeling unwell (e.g., stomach aches) when they have to separate from a parent or carer?
- Make attempts to avoid going to school, camps, sleepovers?
- Express worries than an unpredicted event will lead to permanent separation (e.g., worry about getting kidnapped or lost)?
- Demonstrate reluctance to go to sleep at night due to fears of being alone or nightmares about being separated?
- Cling to parent or caregiver (e.g., shadowing them around the house and physically clinging onto them in the event of separation)
- Express worries that something bad will happen to a loved one if they are separated (e.g., parent getting injured in a car accident)?
What Treatments are Recommended for Separation Anxiety?
The primary treatment protocol for treating separation anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT focuses on helping children to recognise their anxious body signs and feelings around separation, and to identify their maladaptive thoughts maintaining their anxiety around separation. Children are then taught strategies to help them reduce these anxious feelings and replace their anxious thoughts with more helpful and realistic thoughts around separation. Children are then guided in developing a list of situations that are challenging for them, so that they can learn to implement their coping strategies while gradually facing each of the situations under the guidance of a psychologist specialising in the field. Parents are also involved in the treatment of separation anxiety, by learning new ways to interact with their child to ensure that their fears are not reinforced inadvertently.
How Can Parents Support Children with Separation Anxiety?
Parents play a huge role in assisting children overcome their separation anxiety. While it can be tempting to avoid separation to ease your child’s distress, doing so would only serve to reinforce the anxiety in the long-term. Parents can take some simple steps to help children make a start in overcoming their separation anxiety:
- Listen to your child and validate their feelings around separation
- Talk about their difficulties and gently remind them that they survived and coped with previous separation
- Anticipate any difficult separations and have a plan for these times. If your child copes better separating from one parent over the other, maybe that parent can do drop offs instead
- Encourage your child to participate in a variety of activities
- Keep calm during separation
- Praise you child’s efforts
- Provide a consistent pattern during the day so that your child knows what to expect
- Follow through on promises especially about return times
- Develop a quick “goodbye” ritual and leave without stalling or making it a bigger deal than it is