Separation Anxiety – Overview
It’s natural for your young child to feel anxious when you say goodbye. In early childhood, crying, tantrums, or clinginess—all the hallmarks of the disorder—are healthy reactions to separation and a normal stage of development.
It can begin before a child’s first birthday and may reoccur until the age of four.
While the intensity and timing of the disorder can vary tremendously from child to child, it’s important to remember that a little worry over leaving mom or dad is normal, even when your child is older.
With understanding and the right coping strategies, your child’s fears can be relieved—and should fade completely as they get older.
Children are typically attached to their caregivers. When they go away, young kids do not understand that separation is not permanent. This distresses them and makes them feel unsafe. At a certain developmental age, this is normal.
The child values their parents, hence they cling to them. This could happen from ages 1 to 4 years old.
This normal occurrence of separation can be a lot to take in at first but there are ways to ease your child’s anxiety when you leave him in the daycare or with a babysitter.
How to Deal with It in Children
To gradually make your child feel more relaxed about being left with other people, begin by doing this in short intervals. Earn his trust by letting him know you’ll be back soon.
Be true to your word and be back in an hour if that’s what you tell him. Make sure your child is fed, too. Distress when hungry is also contributes to anxiety.
Properly say goodbye, but don’t linger. Don’t make too much of a fuss about leaving. After your goodbye kiss, just leave.
If you make such a big deal about it, the child will be more apprehensive when you do go away. It would be good if your other caregivers are consistent as well.
Making things familiar for the child will make them warm up quicker. Inconsistency always makes a child uneasy.
Normally, it ends at about 3 or 4 years old. Once they have established that being left does not necessarily mean being completely abandoned, they will be more eager to explore the outside world.
However, this does not come naturally for some children. They continue to develop intense distress when they are left even after their parents did everything they can for the child.
Once this distress gets in the way of normal functioning, it can be a sign of the disorder.
Separation Anxiety Disorder Explained
The typical anxiety a child feels when his parents are away from him is supposed to go away at a certain point. When the child has already adjusted to the new environment, he is supposed to be less anxious after some time.
However, when the anxiety remains even after all the best efforts of the adults around the child, a more serious emotional problem may be occurring called separation anxiety disorder or SAD.
Acceptable separation anxiety and SAD have similarities so it is easily confused with one another.
What sets SAD apart, though, is the intensity of the child’s distress and if the distress gets in the way of doing everyday activities.
Kids who suffer from SAD already feel anxious with just the thought of not being with their parents, and might even resort to feigning feeling sick just so they wouldn’t have to be without them.
Children with the disorder are always worried. Their worries are usually about their parents’ safety and well-being while they are away from them.
They get scared that their parents would get hurt when separated from them.
They might also fear that something will happen while they are away that will lead to permanent separation. Other than excessive worrying, other symptoms may come with SAD.
- Unreasonable fear of going to school
- Hesitation to go to bed
- Intense fear of being alone
- Bed-wetting or getting nightmares about separation
- Getting stomachaches or headaches at the time of separation
- Excessive clinging to the primary caregiver
- Repeated temper tantrums or pleading
Having SAD may be from several probable causes. Here’s a list of some of the reasons why your child might be suffering from SAD.
- Overprotective parenting can result in projecting anxiety onto children. In turn, they reflect their parents’ fears.
- Trauma at a young age like death, a hospital stay, or a drastic change in environment could also lead to heightened it.
- Having other family members with SAD can cause children to mimic or model them.
- Having an insecure attachment to caregivers will make the child seek attention or a feeling of security.
Separation Anxiety in Adults
The disorder typically happens in children. However, recent findings have shown that even adults can experience this too.
If being away from a certain loved one, pet, or valuable object, an adult can display excessive fears and worries as well. Just like children, when these worries get in the way of normal functioning, they must be experiencing SAD.
SAD in adults has very similar symptoms to a child’s manifestations. Being alone or away from a significant person or pet will trigger intense fears or worries, along with thoughts about them getting hurt.
They can also feel physical symptoms like nausea, headaches, and sore throats at the time of separation. When these symptoms persist for at least 6 months, it is best to see a mental health professional to address discomforts.
The condition is treatable and given the right therapeutic process can be overcome.
Legg, T. (2018, June 8). Separation anxiety in adults: Symptoms, treatment, and management. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/
Mayo Clinic. (2018). Separation anxiety disorder – Symptoms and causes. Mayo Clinic; https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/separation-anxiety-disorder/
Robinson, L., Segal, J., & Smith, M. (2020, November). Separation Anxiety and Separation Anxiety Disorder. HelpGuide.org. https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/
WebMD. (2020, November). Separation Anxiety in Children. WebMD; WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/parenting/
Leezo is a registered psychologist and registered psychometician from the Philippines. In her clinical practice, she mainly uses Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Solution-Focused Brief Therapy and Expressive Arts to treat a wide range of cases including but not limited to trauma, depression, anxiety, grief and burnout. Also a professor of psychology, Leezo teaches courses such as Experimental Psychology, Psychology of Learning and Psychological Assessment.