Separation anxiety is recognised as a developmentally inappropriate and excessive fear or anxiety concerning the thought of being away from someone a person is attached to such as a parent or care giver. This might be familiar to many parents: you are about to leave the house, but your child gets upset at the thought of you going out without them. When separated from home or major attachment figures, children may exhibit persistent worry, refusal to go out or away from home or attend school, social withdrawal, apathy, sadness, or difficulty concentrating on work or play. This behaviour will be reoccurring for , not a once off experience. It is estimated that anywhere from four to five percent of children and adolescents have separation anxiety.
Depending on the age of the child fears can be focused on the dark, burglars breaking into their house, kidnappers taking them or family members, family members having something happen to them such as being in a car accident and or other situations that are perceived as presenting danger to the family or themselves. Fears of their parents dying or death are common.
Psychological distress including panic, crying, anger, not sleeping, and physiological symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and other pains can occur when they are away from their loved ones. School refusal may lead to academic difficulties and social avoidance. Children may complain that no one loves them or cares about them and that they wish they were dead. When extremely upset at the prospect of separation, they may show anger or occasionally hit or lash out at someone who is forcing separation.
They could also face nightmares where they are alone, or where the people they are attached to are not present. Some children may also deal with when they have to be away from their loved ones within these dreams
Specific Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder
Developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety concerning separation from home or from those to whom the individual is attached, as evidenced by three (or more) of the following:
- recurrent excessive distress when separation from home or major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated
- persistent and excessive worry about losing, or about possible harm befalling, major attachment figures
- persistent and excessive worry that an untoward event will lead to separation from a major attachment figure (e.g., getting lost or being kidnapped)
- persistent reluctance or refusal to go to school or elsewhere because of fear of separation
- persistently and excessively fearful or reluctant to be alone or without major attachment figures at home or without significant adults in other settings
- persistent reluctance or refusal to go to sleep without being near a near a major attachment figure or to sleep away from home
- repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation
- repeated complaints of physical symptoms (such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, or vomiting) when separation from major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated
What to Do
There are some steps you can take to help your child calm down and to alleviate the situation.
Schedule trips accordingly
Of course, sometimes you need to leave the house unexpectedly. But you can try to schedule any trips that you need to take in accordance with your child’s schedule so that you can avoid disturbing them as much as possible. For example, try to only go grocery shopping while your child is at school. Or, you can plan out your trips to be when your child is sleeping or when they just ate, since children who are tired, hungry, or sick are more likely to feel separation anxiety.
Reassure your child
It is important to make sure that your child knows that you will return and everything will be fine. Explain to them that you will never leave them all by themselves and that you will return as soon as possible. You may find that having small “practice” outings can help ease the situation. For example, you can go into another room and say, “Where did Dad go?” Then, go back into the room where your child is, and say, “Here I am!” This will show your child that your leaving is only temporary and you will come back. When they see that you’re being truthful, they will likely be less afraid.
It’s easy to get angry and frustrated when your child throws a temper tantrum every time you go somewhere. But this will only make tensions worse. Take their anxiety and fears seriously and be understanding and patient with them. Don’t tease or yell at them. You can say, “I know you don’t want me to go right now, but I will be back after dinner,” or, “I know you’re upset that I have to go to the bathroom, but I need to take a shower.” If you treat them seriously, and you don’t increase tensions, this could help to ease the situation.
Give them lots of attention
Some parents try to solve this issue by making their children “learn the hard way.” But this will not work here. Children learn and develop best when they are given the proper love and attention. When you are with your child, make sure you play with them, read a book, do homework together, watch a movie, or otherwise spend time together. This will help them to become more secure and confident.
Do not sneak away
This is the most tempting and one that almost everyone who has a child with separation anxiety has done before. But this will only make the situation a lot worse the next time you try to go somewhere because your child will remember that you left the last time. Don’t lie to your children. Tell them honestly where you are going and when you will try to be back. Being honest and reassuring will help them become more confident that you simply left and will come back shortly.
Separation anxiety can seem annoying and can be a nuisance for you and your family, but it will go away in time. Treat your child’s worries seriously and make sure that you reassure them that you will be coming back. Having a calm attitude and being truthful will not only foster a better relationship with your child but will also give them the confidence and security they need to overcome this. Good luck!