While some separation anxiety in children is normal, it can cause much stress and guilt for parents, and lots of upheaval for a child. We’ve all seen those scenes of tears and fears on the doorstep of a daycare or new school.
On the plus side, a child who exhibits signs of separation anxiety is showing that s/he has formed a healthy attachment to you, which lays the foundation to trust and love another person–a key building block in psychological development. For some families, however, the situation tips into “abnormalcy” because a child cannot overcome his/her fears when left in a new environment.
Two factors are thought to play a role in separation anxiety in children: a less-than-secure attachment to the parent/caregiver or major life changes such as divorce, moving house, starting at a new school or the death of an important, beloved person.
What are the signs that the separation anxiety in children has progressed from “normal” to disorder territory? Two key words come to mind: inappropriateness and excessiveness. Here are some of the signs you might see: your child expresses fear about being lost or kidnapped, has nightmares about being separated from you, refuses to go to school/other activities, can’t sleep without you close by, shows ongoing distress or even physical illness when separated. Of course the younger the child, the less s/he will be able to articulate what’s going on. Remember, when a child is faced with the unfamiliar, it’s natural to be somewhat stressed because s/he lacks the ability to predict what will happen next.
So how long is too long? You may need to consult with a professional to assess that, but for younger children, four weeks or more of demonstrating at least three of the behaviors listed above can be a guideline. If an “official” diagnosis is made, treatment options include counseling for the child and/or parents, anxiety medication and psychological testing.
But before you get to that stage, here are some suggestions to help both you and your child cope:
- Don’t begin an unfamiliar situation without testing the waters first. Gradually introduce your child to the new environment; avoid leaving him/her there alone until there’s been some exposure. Focus on the benefits of this new environment, like new kids/toys to play with, alternate activities, etc.
- Do express empathy and show that you understand what your child is feeling. Tell your child that these feelings should eventually fade.
- Don’t make your child feel bad about expressing his/her feelings; anxiety is a normal part of growing up.
- Do be aware if you’re feeling guilty. This may be true, but ensure that your child isn’t manipulating you to get what s/he wants.
- Don’t reward your child for suppressing his or her feelings.
- Do consider alternate arrangements if the problem persists for more than two weeks.
In many cases, the tears and fears will be displaced in a reasonable amount of time as your child adjusts to his or her new situation. If you’re concerned that’s not happening, consider seeking professional assistance to manage separation anxiety in children.
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