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Separation anxiety in children

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

Separation Anxiety Disorder

It is normal for children to sometimes feel anxious when separated from their parents/carers. This anxiety often fades as they grow older and develop more independence and confidence.

If your child’s anxiety associated with distance from parent(s) continues to be prevalent after the age of five and starts to affect their life (e.g. refuses to be out of sight of the parent) it could indicate separation anxiety disorder.

How can we recognise separation anxiety disorder?

Physical symptoms include:

Stomach aches, racing heart, shallow breathing, dizziness, with older children possibly experiencing headaches and panic attacks.

Anxious thoughts may include:

Varied thoughts/worries around being separated from the parent or being alone. Fears that something bad may happen to them if they are alone.

Behavioural symptoms of younger children may include:

Crying, clinging or temper tantrums when anticipating or experiencing separation; difficulty falling asleep alone; nightmares with themes of separation. The child may often say “don’t leave me alone”, “where are you going?” or/and “mummy/daddy don’t go”

Helping children with separation anxiety

When venturing into new locations:

- Use a transitional object - let your child take something they love from home, like a teddy bear, blanket, or pillow perhaps belonging to the parent with their scent. These objects will help your child feel safer and once they feel more comfortable in the new place, you can gradually faze them out

- Gently encourage your child to separate from you by giving them practice. It is important to give them positive experiences of separations and reunions. By avoiding separations from your child, you can make the problem worse

- Spend time with them in the new places to help them build safe relationships and feel safe.

- Give plenty of notice with plans to go to new places, talk about it positively, show them photos and explore what it is going to be like

When leaving your child

1. Stay as relaxed as possible with a calm happy look on your face - try to feel confident about leaving them and know that they are safe, because your child may pick up on your emotions.

2. Settle your child into an activity that they enjoy before you leave

3. Tell your child when you are leaving and when you will be back

4. Say goodbye to your child briefly and do not drag it out

Ways to improve your child’s separation anxiety at home:

- Try to avoid negative comments such as “he’s such a mummy’s boy” or “don’t be such a baby”

- Set goals and weekly challenges for the week to start to break down the separation barriers

- Create social stories describing the journey/experience with an empowering and positive outcome

- Praise the brave choices when they distance themselves from you and develop a growth mindset together

- Notice and name how they are feeling and offer support/ strategies to help them

By Demelza Wall

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