Separation anxiety

By Wellbeing in Mind Psychologists Dr Tania Pomario and Dr Denise Hatzis

It’s natural for young children to feel anxious when they have to say goodbye to a parent or primary caregiver. Crying, clinginess or tantrums are healthy reactions to separation and a normal stage of development in the first 4 years of life.

Even for older children, a little worry over leaving mum or dad is normal, especially when your child is still settling into a new environment (e.g. the first few days of starting at a new school) or when there has been a change in routine (e.g. moving from home schooling back to in-class learning after the COVID-19 lockdown).  

  • You can ease your child’s anxiety by firstly planning in advance with your child; tell them what is going to happen, who will be looking after them while you are gone and what time you will be back.  

  • Tell your child when you are leaving rather than sneaking out without saying goodbye as this can make things worse.   Your child might feel confused or upset when he realises you have gone and might be harder to settle the next time you leave him/her.

  • Say goodbye to your child briefly – don’t drag it out.

  • Starting daycare/kindy for the first time can be hard for parents too.  Try to keep a relaxed and happy look on your face when you are leaving so that your child does not think the place isn’t safe.  

  • It can be very frustrating or upsetting to leave a child when they are crying or having a tantrum.  It is important to stay patient, supportive and consistent by gently but firmly maintaining the boundaries agreed upon.

 

Some children experience separation anxiety that does not go away over time. If separation anxiety is severe enough to interfere with normal activities like attending school or developing friendships, and lasts for months rather than days, it may be a sign of a larger problem: separation anxiety disorder. 

Separation anxiety disorder is a serious psychological condition where a child becomes excessively anxious in situations where there is a threat or actual instance of separation from a loved one, typically a parent or caregiver.    Separation anxiety disorder typically appears in early childhood, but peaks in late childhood (i.e. between the ages of 8 to 11 years). 

If your child displays three of more of the following behaviours, they may benefit from professional assistance:    

  • If your child persistently talks about being worried that something bad might happen to you, (e.g., that you might be injured or killed).

  • If your child is fearful that something might happen that leads to them being separated from your (e.g. that he/she might get lost or kidnapped).  

  • Refusing to go to school.

  • Some children may be excessively fearful or reluctant to be alone or without a parent at home. For younger children, who are not typically left alone at home, this may manifest as anxiety about being in the home on their own (e.g. become very anxious if mum goes outside to hang up the laundry) or being very anxious about playing outside without a parent being present.

  • Children with separation anxiety often have sleep problems, either because they are anxious about sleeping on their own or because they have nightmares about being separated from their parent.  

  • Repeated complaints of physical symptoms (e.g. headaches, stomach aches) when required to separate from a parent or when such separation is anticipated is also quite common.

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