Although separation anxiety is considered a natural stage of development up to the age of about 6 years, it can be a distressing time for both the child and parents.
Fortunately, separation anxiety can be eased with some helpful strategies (listed at the end of this article).
Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation Anxiety becomes a disorder when the anxiety experienced by the child becomes so intense that it interferes with their school attendance, academic performance, social activities and home environment. Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) include:
- Distress when the child is separated from the home or their parent/s (or important attachment figure);
- Worry that they may lose their parent, or that their parent may be harmed in some way;
- Worry that an unexpected event will lead to being separated from their parent, eg getting lost;
- Refusing to attend school;
- Fear of being alone without their parent;
- Refusing to sleep without their parent;
- Nightmares involving being separated from their parent;
- Ongoing physical complaints such as headache or stomach ache;
- Clinging to their parent constantly.
If your child experiences some of these symptoms, it may be time to seek professional help.
What Strategies Work?
There are many strategies that can help alleviate your child’s symptoms of Separation Anxiety. Firstly, it is helpful to understand what may have contributed to your child’s symptoms including:
- Changes to their environment which trigger stress (eg change of teacher or school; change of house etc);
- Changes to their routine at home (eg suddenly a parent has to work away for long periods of time);
- Over-protective parenting (eg without realising, parents can sometimes project their own anxieties onto their child).
When seeking professional help, treatment will focus on a Gradual Exposure Therapy approach to separation. As a Clinical Psychologist I can assist the parent and child with this process. This will be accompanied by demonstrating strategies specifically for the child to assist with Anxiety Management, such as:
- Deep Breathing;
- Grounding (to assist the child in not getting caught up in the anxiety provoking thoughts);
- Relaxation and Visualisation.
Tools for Parents
Helpful tools specifically for parents include:
- Establishing a consistent routine for your child;
- Creating a goodbye ritual for use when separation occurs;
- Learning to make separation “short and sweet” rather than long and drawn out, or sneaking away while the child is unaware;
- Using positive reinforcement;
- Increasing positive praise;
- Learning how to stay calm during the separation; and
- Listening to how your child is feeling, rather than telling them not to worry about it.
For more information on how to help your child, I welcome you to make an appointment with me.
Author: Leia Redman, B Psych, M Psych (Clinical), MAPS, CCLIN.
Leia’s primary focus is clinical child and adolescent psychology, although she can treat individuals and couples of all ages. She has training and experience in a variety of evidence based treatment approaches.
To make an appointment with Clinical Psychologist Leia Redman try Online Booking – Loganholme or call M1 Psychology (Loganholme) on (07) 3067 9129.
- American Psychiatric Association, 2013. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. DSM-V.
- Mash, E. J., & Barkley, R. J. (2003). Child Psychopathology. 2nd Edition. New York: Guilford Press.