4 tips to ease separation anxiety

Separation anxiety: 4 tips for easier transitions

Even though my daughters went to my sister-in-law’s for daycare after my wife and I had to return to work, leaving them behind was tough. I remember mornings of tears and clutching fingers refusing to let go. And, that was just me. My daughters didn’t handle separation anxiety well, either.

Simply put, this stage of parenting is no fun, but Susan Garvin, a Banner Health licensed clinical social worker, explains it is totally normal. Garvin, who sees patients at the Banner Health Clinics in Windsor and Loveland, CO., explained that heightened separation anxiety is part of normal, early development. It also can show that a child is building strong attachments to parents. Garvin, who works with children, teens and adults, says a child will typically start showing anxiety around strangers right around the first birthday.

What can parents do?       

Garvin offers these 4 tips to help ease the transition for children having a hard time with the transition:

  • Timing: Try not to leave children when they are tired, hungry or restless, as this can cause more extreme reactions to separation. It’s not always possible, but try avoid having children between 8 months old and 1 year start with a daycare provider because kids experience more anxiety towards strangers during this time.
  • Calm and consistent: During times of separation, remain loving and nurturing and be sure to show confidence in the child. Also, use time concepts that are easy for children to understand, such as after lunch, and be firm with goodbyes without coming back and forth.
  • Follow through on promises: Make sure to return on time to help build the child’s confidence in your returning.
  • Minimize scary things: Children who already have nightmares or worry about something bad happening to them or family members should not watch scary TV shows or movies or play games with scary content; this can just make the situation worse. Also, consider making sure your children are not within earshot of news or adult shows or conversations that could invoke fear.

“If symptoms continue or worsen, individual and family therapy can be helpful to teach relaxation skills, explore any cognitive distortions and give parents additional ideas to try at home,” Garvin said.

When is it a problem?

Garvin noted that children described as demanding, intrusive or needing constant attention may have separation anxiety disorder. These feelings may lead to resentment or conflict within the family.

So, when should a parent worry?

“If symptoms begin to escalate, parents should be concerned,” Garvin said.

Examples of escalating symptoms include:

  • Homesickness and discomfort to the point of misery when away from home
  • Refusing to go school, having academic difficulties and social isolation
  • Anger or aggression toward someone who is forcing the separation
  • Reporting unusual perceptual experiences, mostly at night or in the dark

What is separation anxiety disorder?

Imagine when this anxiety gets really bad. Separation anxiety disorder typically develops after stressful events, such as a relative’s or a pet’s death, change of schools or other life-changing events and strikes older children as well, noted Garvin. She describes it as an excessive fear or anxiety of separating from parents or other caregivers, and she says it is the most common form of anxiety disorder in children younger than 12 years of age.

How is separation anxiety disorder diagnosed? 

To be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), children must have at least three of eight specific criteria for at least four weeks. This includes:

  1. Repeated excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or from major attachment figures (think major tantrums)
  2. Persistent and excessive worry about losing parents or about possible harm to them, such as illness, injury, disasters, or death
  3. Persistent and excessive worry about experiencing an untoward event (e.g., getting lost, being kidnapped, having an accident, becoming ill) that causes separation from parents or other primary caregivers
  4. Persistent reluctance or refusal to go out, away from home, to school, to work, or elsewhere because of fear of separation
  5. Persistent and excessive fear of or reluctance about being alone or without major attachment figures at home or in other settings
  6. Persistent reluctance or refusal to sleep away from home or to go to sleep without being near a major attachment figure
  7. Repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation (e.g., fire in the home, other catastrophes, death)
  8. Repeated complaints of physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, nausea, vomiting – more so in children, palpitations, dizziness, feeling faint – more common in adolescents) when separation from major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated.

Thankfully. my girls never experienced severe separation anxiety. They have gotten much better when my wife and I leaving them. However, I’ll miss those days when they become teenagers and want to get out of the house often.

Want to read more about raising healthy kids? Check out the GO MOM blog!

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