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Separation Anxiety in Children

He refuses to go to school, he fears sleeping alone at night, and he cannot fathom spending a moment outside your shadow. What is this behavior your child is exhibiting? Should you be concerned about it?

Every child has to deal with separation from parents in terms of having to spend more time at school, or with a caretaker. Easing a child into separation is an important process of bringing him up so that he learns how to mingle and take care of himself slowly. Anxiety in children at the time of separation, say when they are left with a caretaker, from parents or a caregiver is normal, and in fact healthy. Every child fears being left alone after having been in the shadow of his parents for such a long time, which is a regular behavior pattern exhibited by most children. However, if this pattern continues in the long run, where he refuses to leave your side, it may be a cause for concern, and the development of a condition known as separation anxiety disorder. Fortunately, it is possible to treat separation anxiety in children. These methods will be looked into after looking at the causes and symptoms of the condition.

Causes

As mentioned earlier, it is perfectly normal for a child to worry about separating from his parents even for a short period of time, after which he eases into the pattern. This behavior is exhibited from infancy up to around 6 years of age. At infancy, they start meeting strangers that can trigger some sort of anxiety in them. Seeing parents or familiar faces around eases this anxiety. If your child does not ease into the pattern of spending time without you, here are some reasons why this may be happening.

  • Living in the Shadow of Overprotective Parents: If you ever wondered why your child exhibited such clingy behavior, you should probably analyze your own behavior patterns. Are you the kind of parent who won’t leave sight of her child even for a bit? Are you always around to take care of him, and ensure that he is safe? Do you still encourage him to sleep with you at night? All these behavioral patterns make your child believe that this is how life is always going to be. When you’re finally ready to overcome your own anxiety and part with him, it has rubbed off on him, who simply refuses to be left alone or with anyone else for that matter.
  • Losing Loved Ones at an Early Stage: In some cases, the loss of a loved one, such as one parent, or a sibling, or even a pet can trigger the separation anxiety disorder in children.
  • Genetic and Environmental Susceptibility: Children of parents who exhibited such behavior during their childhood are likely to exhibit symptoms of this disorder. Further, studies have shown that stress during pregnancy may be one of the causes of this problem. Environmental changes are also likely as reasons behind this condition, such as change of house or school. The stress caused by adjusting to these changes may be the triggers here.

Symptoms

Children exhibit very typical behavioral traits when they are suffering from separation anxiety. This disorder usually has both psychological and physical manifestations. Some symptoms may include:

  • Fear of getting lost or being taken away by someone else.
  • Fear of something bad happening to a loved one.
  • Typical clingy behavior where the child refuses to go anywhere without the parent.
  • Repeated instances of hesitation to go to school or be left at a day care.
  • Insistence of having a parent or loved one close to the child when sleeping.
  • Nightmares that depict separation from the parent.
  • Complaints of physical problems such as stomachaches or headaches, to avoid separation.

These are behavior patterns you may initially find adorable and touching, because your child may not want to leave your side. However, persistent display of such behavior should be a cause for concern and should be given due attention at the earliest.

Treatment

Diagnosing separation anxiety in children is a little difficult because the kind of behavior they display seems normal. However, it is important that attention be paid to these behavior patterns as such a condition going undiagnosed may interfere with a child’s psychological and social development. Sometimes, the aforementioned symptoms may be displayed when a child suffers from other psychological disorders too. This is why diagnosing this problem may be slightly difficult. In any case, experts suggest that if children exhibit any three of the aforementioned symptoms for a duration of at least a month, the condition should be reported to a mental health care professional.

If the intensity of the symptoms is mild, counseling to the child as well as parents has proven to be useful in treating the condition in children. If the symptoms are severe, therapeutic intervention in the form of behavioral modification techniques, cognitive therapy, and psychotherapy is carried out. These are various forms of therapy that help a child address the root cause of the problem and deal with them in a positive manner. While these treatment methods require the attention of a professional, you as a parent may take some measures to make the entire process easier to deal with, for your child. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Be Strong Yourself: Your child needs to know that you can deal with separation and may then look up to you as an example of dealing with it himself.
  • Get Him Used to Separation: Leave him in a different environment only for a short period to start off with. Let him get used to his surroundings and your absence. Assure him that he is safe in whatever environment you leave him, and that you will always be there if he needs you.
  • Teach Your Child to Take Control: Certain things are in your child’s hands too, and teaching him that is your job. While it is okay to throw a tantrum once in a while, making a habit of it will not take him anywhere. Teach him how to take care of himself in your absence and make him independent so that the anxiety is eased.
  • Be Easily Contactable: Wherever your child is, give him the ability to contact you even for just a minute, for the sake of reassurance, so that he knows you are there and are fine. Once he gets used to his surroundings, this pattern will also change.

Finally, rewarding your child for overcoming his fears and anxieties will go a long way in teaching him how to be self-sufficient. It is a good idea to be a calm parent yourself so that this condition does not worsen. Being calm is one thing, but don’t be indifferent. Things will slowly fall into place.

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