What Is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is generally defined as the fear of being away from the primary caregiver. It is a healthy and normal part of a child’s development between 8 and 14 months. Separation anxiety disorder, on the other hand, is a diagnosis for children who fall outside the boundaries of this normal developmental stage. The common symptoms of separation anxiety are screaming, excessive crying, forcefully holding onto the caregiver, refusal to engage with another caregiver, or other children.
Separation Anxiety Versus Separation Anxiety Disorder
It is normal for some older children to always want their parents around, however, they don`t mind taking instruction from a caregiver. Children over two years old who always want to be with their parents and don’t respond to caregivers may be struggling with separation anxiety disorder. Here are the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder:
- Stomach distress
- Age-inappropriate separation anxiety in older children or adults
- Excessive fears or worry that something will happen to either them or parent during a separation
- Refusal to participate in activities without their parents
- Inconsolable crying during the separation
Separation anxiety disorder and separation anxiety have symptoms that overlap. To be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, the child must exhibit symptoms for at least six months and they must cause highly disturbing stress and display poor functioning at home, at school, and with peers.
Causes of Separation Anxiety Disorder
Although experts are yet to identify the underlying causes of the condition, there are various external triggers that worsen it. Here are some of the common ones:
- A family history of mental illnesses
- New situations that take children out of their routine: relocation, a new caregiver, or a new sibling
- Family difficulties such as financial issues or marital problems put stress on the adults in the home and can have negative effects on children
How to Treat Separation Anxiety Disorder
Psychotherapy is instrumental in treating children with separation anxiety or separation anxiety disorder. Before the first therapy, garner as much information as possible. Get details about your child’s behavior both when you leave and while you are away, as well as how they relate with or without a caregiver.
In some cases, psychotherapy is not enough. Also, the child may be suffering from other disorders like depression. Your mental healthcare provider may prescribe antidepressant medication like anti-anxiety medication or a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI).
You can also manage the condition by adopting a few strategies. When next you need to leave the child, don`t sneak away, as this can worsen the child`s fear. Here`s what to do instead:
- Explain what will happen in simple terms; tell the child where you’re going, who will take care of them, and when you will return.
- Give your child ample time to adjust and practice new methods like visiting a new school or babysitter’s house together so they can get used to the new person before you leave.
- Remain calm about the process and treat the separation as a normal occurrence.
- Say goodbye once when you need to leave. No matter how much your child cries or screams, give them a big hug and kiss, say goodbye, and walk out the door without giving in to the temptation to return.
- Start by leaving them for only an hour or two initially, then gradually increase the duration.
- Always returning when you promised.
How to Deal with Anxiety in Children
The way you respond to your child’s anxiety will determine how much and quickly they learn to cope with anxious feelings. Here are some strategies with which you can help an anxious child to deal with their uncomfortable feelings.
Validate their Feelings
When your child says they’re worried about something, don`t tell them it`s no big deal or it`s nothing to worry about. Such responses never help; they only make the child feel that their messages are wrong or you don`t understand them.
Instead, validate their feelings by telling them more soothing words such as, “I see that you’re feeling really nervous,” or “I’d be anxious too if I had to face such a big crowd.” Such words are better when they complain of nervousness. Next, send a message that communicates that they`re confident and can succeed despite the nerves.
Differentiate Real Threats from False Alarms
Talk to your child about how anxiety can keep them safe. Give vivid examples like if a tiger ran after them, their brain would signal to their body that they’re in danger. and there would be noticeable changes like sweaty palms and an increased heart rate. Let them also know that are times when their brain triggers a false alarm. Explain to them that such false alarms can make them feel intense fear. You may also give them relatable examples such as speaking in front of many people or preparing for a big test.
Encourage them to Practice Relaxation
There are many relaxation techniques that can help you ease stress and anxiety, as well as slow down negative thoughts. These relaxation techniques can also help them prevent the cognitive and physical symptoms of separation anxiety disorder. Your mental healthcare provider can advise you on relaxation techniques that are suitable for your child.
Ensure they Get Adequate Sleep
Sleep disturbances worsen separation anxiety disorder don`t go well together. Children with this disorder may have trouble sleeping, and sleep deprivation can worsen the condition.
Tackle Negative Thoughts
Children have negative thoughts that may cause anxiety and affect their self-esteem. Here`s how to deal with such thoughts:
To tackle a negative thought, you have to spot it. Encourage them to create a list of negative thoughts they often have.
Encourage them to find the reasons for their anxious thoughts. For the really unrealistic ones, help them discredit such. Help them overcome others, and teach them not to accept every negative thought that comes into their head.
Once they’re able to recognize and challenge their negative thoughts, work on replacing such thoughts with positive ones. Tell them reassuring words and teach them how to treat themselves with compassion and kindness by using healthier self-talk.
Teach Deep Breathing
Slow, deep breathing can deal with symptoms of depression and anxiety. If your child experiences a racing heartbeat or tight muscles, teach them how to calm their body with some simple breathing exercises.
Some Mental Health Facts for Adults and Children
- To prevent mental health illness, you should communicate with family and friends, especially during stressful periods.
- 50% of adults in the U.S. who have had a problem with substance abuse also suffer from mental illness.
- One in 10 young people has suffered major depression.
Only 44% of adults with diagnosable mental illnesses receive treatment.
- One in five Americans has experienced some form of mental illness.
- Contrary to popular belief, mental illness patients are not necessarily violent; only 3-5% of violent acts are attributed to people with severe mental illness.
- People who have lived through a major disaster are twice at risk of mental health issues than those who haven`t.
- There are various treatment options for mental health problems; some of them are therapy, OTC medication, and yoga.
- Genetics, illness, injury, and traumatic life experiences are common causes of mental illness.