As aforementioned in my previous post, separation anxiety as a normal life stage first develops at about 7 months of age; once a baby understands that his or her caregivers do not disappear when out of sight (object permanence). That leads to the baby developing a true attachment to those adults. Normal separation anxiety is at its strongest at 10 to 18 months and gradually subsides, usually by the age of 3 years. Normal separation anxiety may result in parents having trouble with their babies at bedtime or other times of separation, in that the child becomes anxious, cries, or clings to the caretaker.
Separation anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder that begins in childhood and is characterized by worrying that is out of proportion to the situation of temporarily leaving home or otherwise separating from loved ones. Four percent to 5% of children and adolescents suffer from separation anxiety disorder. The symptoms/signs of separation anxiety include:
- Repeated excessive anxiety about something bad happening to loved ones or losing them.
- Heightened concern about either getting lost or being kidnapped.
- Repeated hesitancy or refusal to go to daycare or school or to be alone or without loved ones or other adults that are important to the anxious child.
- Persistent reluctance or refusal to go to sleep at nighttime without being physically close to adult loved ones.
- Repeated nightmares about being separated from the people who are important to the sufferer.
- Recurrent physical complaints, such as headaches or stomach aches, when separation either occurs or is expected.
Tips on how to help your child overcome separation anxiety:
- Try not to punish your child for continuing to suffer from the symptoms, but rather reward your child for small victories.
- Allow your child, in the beginning, to try to achieve those small victories in your presence. Attend some classes with your child, the child may initially want to be on your lap, then is able to sit next to you, and later you may wait outside the classroom, until the final goal of complete separation is achieved.
- Allow your child to have a symbolic reminder of you and the home. Pictures or a favorite toy may be utilized as a transitional object and can have a calming effect on your child.
- Try to prepare your child for upcoming separations whenever possible, as sudden separations may be very difficult in the beginning.
- Try separations for a brief period of time. Gradually increase time and distance.
- When you tell your child that you are going…Go! Do not stall, or repeat goodbyes. Your child may then become clingy and irritable.
- Honor time commitments to your child (especially older children).
- Plan fun activities in advance so you allow the child to anticipate positive outcomes once you are reunited.
- Simple relaxation techniques can help your child overcome his/her anxiety. Try teaching the child simple exercises like taking a deep breath or counting to 10.