It’s not unusual for a young child to feel worried or anxious when being dropped off at daycare or someone else’s home. In most cases, separation anxiety is a normal stage of childhood development. However, in some children, the anxious feelings persist or even intensify over time, causing chronic worries and interference with daily activities.
Fortunately, there are actions that parents can take to help their children.
What’s Normal and What’s Not
In children younger than four, reactions such as throwing a tantrum, crying or becoming clingy are natural and expected. What is not normal is a continuance of these feelings or feelings of anxiety that interfere with school and playtime. Intense or chronic separation anxiety are suggestive of separation anxiety disorder.
What Are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Children with separation anxiety disorder may experience one or more of the following symptoms:
- An intense fear that something bad will happen to their parent, sibling or another loved one
- Worries about permanent separation
- Nightmares about separation
- Reluctance to sleep, especially if the parent isn’t at home
- Refusal to go to school
- Complaints of physical illness such as headaches and stomachaches
What Can Parents Do to Help Their Children?
Parents can take action to lessen the symptoms of separation anxiety in their children. One of the first things parents should do is to avoid the triggers that cause the anxiety.
Reducing stress in the child’s life and maintaining a consistent environment and routine help children to lessen their anxiety. Parents can also act to control their own behaviors, as children who observe anxiety in their parents are more likely to become anxious themselves.
Parents can talk about the issue with their children. Listening to and respecting the child’s feelings show the child that his or her parent is aware.
Providing a consistent pattern for daily activities, setting limits about following school and household rules and offering choices about the separation such as bringing a favorite animal or listening to favorite music along the way can help to ease the transition. Patience and self-education about the issue can go a long way in helping parents cope with separation anxiety in their children.
Sometimes professional help is also needed for the child as well as the parent. Counseling, play therapy and medications are some of the treatment options.