Ease Your Child’s Separation Anxiety
It’s natural for a young child to feel anxious when they have to say goodbye. In early childhood reactions to separation such as crying, tantrums, or clinginess are a part of a healthy development process. Separation anxiety is normal in very young children. Nearly all children between the ages of 18 months to 3 years have separation anxiety. But the symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) are more severe. Children with SAD have worries and fears, about being apart from home or family, that are not appropriate for their age.
What might cause SAD?
Just like other anxiety disorders SAD can be caused by any combination of factors that relate to physical health, environmental factors, genetic vulnerability, and biochemical disturbances.
- Biological Factors
A child who has a family member with any of the anxiety disorders is more likely to be similarly affected. Children might inherit genes that make them more prone to anxiety or anxiety disorders.
Genetics help direct the way brain chemicals (called neurotransmitters) work. Imbalances in certain neurotransmitters might play a role in how the brain works, which can affect moods and emotions and increase the likelihood of developing anxiety disorders. If specific brain chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine or serotonin are in a short supply it can cause anxiety.
- Environmental factors
Stressful, chaotic, or unstable family relationships and home environment can also make children more prone to experiencing anxiety. Bullying or abuse may also be a contributing factor.
- Learned behaviours
Growing up in a family where other members are fearful or anxious can also "teach" a child to be afraid or excessively worry.
Separation Anxiety Disorder Symptoms
Each child may have different symptoms. But the most commonly children with SAD might:
- Refuse to sleep alone
- Refuse to go to school
- Have nightmares about separation
- Be very clingy, even when at home
- Excessively worry about being parted from home or family
- Excessively worry about the safety of a family member
- Excessively worry about getting lost from family
- Have frequent stomach aches, headaches, or nausea
- Have muscle tension
- Have repeated temper tantrums or pleading
- Wet the bed
- Show signs of panic at times of separation from parents or caregivers
- Worry that something bad will happen to the parent or themselves if they are separated
How is SAD treated in children?
Children and teens with SAD often need treatment to get better. The treatment will depend on your child’s symptoms, age, general health and severity of the condition.
- Mental-health counselling
Talking to a trained professional might help your child understand what's making them anxious and allow them to work through these stressful situations. Counselling helps a child learn how to better manage and cope with anxiety.
If your child's anxiety problem does not get better with therapy, your doctor may talk to you about trying medication. They're usually only prescribed by doctors who specialise in children and teens mental health. Antidepressant or anti-anxiety medicine may help some children feel calmer.
How to help a child with SAD
It can be tempting as a parent to help your child avoid the things they're afraid of or the things that make them anxious. However, doing this will only reinforce their fears and anxiety. Rather than trying to avoid separation, you can help your child combat separation anxiety disorder.
- Educate yourself about separation anxiety disorder (so you can more easily empathise with their struggles)
- Listen to and respect your child’s feelings
- Talk about their feelings
- Anticipate separation difficulty (Be ready for transition points that can cause anxiety for your child e.g., dropping at school)
- Keep calm during separation (your child usually models behaviour after you)
- Encourage your child to participate in healthy social and physical activities (they tend to ease anxiety)
- Praise your child’s efforts of coping with their anxiety