Many parents experience separation anxiety, as most babies go through this phase by 8 months of age. For some children, however, the fear of being separated from the parent persists or may disappear and then return. Separation anxiety from age 3 onwards affects about 4% of children.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a strong fear that a child has of being separated from his or her parents. Usually, this fear is related to the parent with whom the child spends the most time. However, sometimes this anxiety can be directed toward both parents or other close people, such as a grandparent or sibling.
A child may experience periods of separation anxiety at important times, such as starting daycare or school. In most cases, this problem resolves itself in a few days or weeks, as the child adjusts to the new environment.
It is normal for a young child to be afraid of being abandoned and to believe that his or her parents will not come back. Eventually, however, the child understands that the parent will return. This usually ends the separation anxiety.
However, separation anxiety disorder may be present if the child’s condition seems more intense and prolonged than would be expected for other children of the same age and is disruptive to the child’s development and adjustment.
Possible causes of separation anxiety
There are several possible causes of why a child develops separation anxiety. Each child’s situation is different. Separation anxiety may be related to:
a specific event or be triggered by a period of stress: illness in the family, separation from parents, moving or changing daycare or school;
genetic or environmental factors. If people close to the child have suffered or are suffering from anxiety disorders, the child is more likely to experience separation anxiety, to varying degrees. Also, the child may tend to mimic the anxiety reactions of the parent with the anxiety disorder;
a temperament that makes the child naturally more likely to develop anxiety
a difficult or traumatic event that has temporarily separated the child from his or her parents, such as an extended hospitalization.
How can you help your child with separation anxiety?
Although this phase is often difficult for the whole family, there are ways to help your child overcome separation anxiety. For example, you can :
“practice” separation: leave your child with a trusted person for short periods of time in a known and safe environment (such as home), even if he or she cries at the time of separation, and then gradually lengthen the time;
prepare your child for separations: talk about where he or she is going, take him or her there ahead of time if possible, rehearse the steps and process of what is going to happen, and create a bond with someone there For example, if your child is anxious about going to school, you can show them around the school and have fun together in the yard. If your child has an anxiety disorder diagnosis, you could ask the school if he or she can visit the new classroom and meet the teacher before school starts;
Maintain a reassuring routine throughout the more difficult phase (meal schedule, bedtime, etc.)
Develop a brief and neutral goodbye ritual: give a kiss, say goodbye and specify who will be coming back to pick him up, then leave. Prolonging the moment of separation with a child in crisis is not recommended. Always follow the same steps during the goodbye ritual so that it is predictable and therefore reassuring
Respect the promised time of return;
Give your child a transitional object (e.g., a favourite doggie) before leaving
Be patient: some periods (Monday mornings, return from vacation, etc.) can be more difficult than others for your child;
Stay calm: your attitude will reassure your child that he or she is safe. If your child feels confident in you, it will soothe him/her because he/she trusts you.
Separation anxiety disorder
If separation anxiety persists for more than four weeks, causes significant distress in the child and disrupts the family’s daily life, it is advisable to consult a health professional (doctor, child psychiatrist, psychologist or neuropsychologist). He or she may diagnose separation anxiety disorder.This disorder consists of an excessive fear of separation from the parent, with very dramatic reactions whenever this happens. Separation anxiety disorder interferes with a child’s functioning: for example, he or she may have very intense and lengthy outbursts at daycare or school, be plagued by obsessive thoughts, refuse interactions with other children, avoid contact with the responsible adult, have disturbed sleep and appetite, etc.
Things to remember
A child with separation anxiety feels a great deal of fear when he or she has to separate from his or her parents.
Separation anxiety usually lasts a few days or weeks and disappears once the child has become accustomed to his or her new environment (e.g. daycare, school).
When separation anxiety does not go away and interferes with the child’s functioning or the family’s daily life, it is called separation anxiety disorder.