There are many different stages during parenting life where a child can experience separation anxiety. It can be very hard to know how to manage this, causing lots of tears (child and parent!).
We chatted to Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Daniela Salazar from The LightHouse Arabia to understand a little more about what the child is going through and how best to support them.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation Anxiety Disorder is a mental health disorder that causes children to become extremely upset when they are separated from parents or caregivers. Most children do experience a degree of fear when separating from their caregivers however, when this fear interferes with their life functioning it is referred to as Separation Anxiety. Children with Separation Anxiety tend to:
Have problems saying goodbye
Fear that something bad will happen to a family member during separation
Throw tantrums when they have to leave parents or caregivers
Constantly following a parent at home
Have nightmares about bad things happening to family members
Physical symptoms like stomachaches, headaches, and dizziness
Refuse to go to school or on playdates
Have an intense need to know where their parents are and communicate with them (can be through phone or texting but can also be through physically being near the parent)
Why does separation anxiety happen?
Experiencing some form of separation anxiety is normal in children between the ages of 18 months and 3 years. The triggers are somewhat the same, but for individuals with Separation Anxiety Disorder, the anxiety experienced is more intense and relentless.
Changes: external or situational processes that occur quickly without the psychological tools to understand them.
Life stresses or loss that result in separation: experiencing separation that triggers anxiety, even if the separation if not permanent (for example going to a field trip with friends without parents) can create fear that the caretaker will not return, resulting in separation anxiety.
Family history: anxiety is partially heritable, therefore, if we have family members with diagnosed anxiety it will increase the chances of the child experiencing these symptoms as well.
Environmental changes, such as experiencing some type of life circumstance that involves separation.
Do all children go through separation anxiety?
In general, it is common for very young children (between the ages 18 months and 3 years) to experience some amounts of anxiety. It is less common, however, to experience the kind that inhibits daily functioning. Typically, this would involve an anxiety-inducing event that triggers the sense of anxiety. This can either be a significant event that causes the child to reassess their view of the world, or something less significant that triggers a biological predisposition.
Does it change when you are a sibling – how does it differ?
Separation anxiety is rooted in external factors/ changes rather than biological reasons. The way
parents and caregivers handle transitions or changes in the child’s life will have an impact. Let’s
remember children need to feel empowered, heard, supported, and most importantly given
opportunities to express themselves safely. It will depend on the amount of guidance and
support the child feels and receives from parents.
Tips on supporting your child through separation anxiety
Understand that children are a mirror of you: The way you cope with your own emotions is going to be the model we teach our children and the tools we show them to have.
Promote Emotional Intelligence and Coping Skills: Teaching children to recognize their emotions and deal with them on their own can remove the need of the presence of the parent. It is also important to work towards setting a plan with your child on how they can work their way through these feelings when in public without the presence of the parent.
o Ask the teacher for permission to leave the classroom and go to the bathroom to calm down if at school they are feeling anxious (you can discuss this beforehand with the child’s teachers)
o Give the child an object that they connect with the parent to make them feel connected to the parent even when apart. Teach them to hold this item if they feel their anxiety begin to surface.
State facts clearly and simply, validate emotions, and focus what needs to happen in the future: When your child experiences high anxiety when you leave, you can do the following
State the Situation: I will be leaving now because I need to go to X. You are going to be safe here with X OR You need to go to X because it is important to X. I will be back X.
Validate Emotions: I know that you may feel sad and scared, and that might be because you miss me. I will miss you too, but it is important that you stay here.
Focus on the Emotion Management: you may cry now and feel sad or scared, but you can try talking to X and they can comfort you and support you just as well.
Encourage the Child to Think Past the Separation: Focus on the task that the child can do during the time of separation – that can be having fun with friends, learning at school, or receiving affection from a family member if they are at the member’s house.
Are there any book recommendations for parents and/or children to read around this?
· The Invisible String – by Patrice Karst
· The Kissing Hand – by Audrey Penn.
· No Matter What – by Debi Gliori
· The Worry Box – By Suzanne Chiew
· Meet Me at The Moon – By Gianna Marino
· Llama Llama Misses Mama – By Anna Dewdney
· Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-step Guide for Parents – by Ronald M. Rapee
· Separation Anxiety: ‘Exactly What I Needed for a Change of Pace, Funny and Charming' – by Judy Blum.