Separation Anxiety: Causes, Symptoms & Cure

Parting with someone you love is difficult, even it is for a short time. This is especially painful if you are a child being separated from his or her caregiver for the first time. Separation anxiety is a situation in which a person feels anxious or stressed when they are put into an unfamiliar situation or with an unknown person or are kept away from their home or a family member. This is mostly observed in children and infants aged between 6 months to 3 years.



Video: Separation Anxiety in Children

What is Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children?

Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is a condition developed in children above the age of 6 months when a child feels stressed or nervous while he plays with other children or while he goes to school. A child tends to display enormous fear or distress once separated from the ones he/she loves or has started to recognise as family or caregivers. Separation anxiety in children is a normal stage of development but may require professional help to conquer if it is severe. Various steps can be taken to help children learn how to tackle separation anxiety.





While separation anxiety is normal, an extended period of fear and distress means that your child is not facing a normal feeling of anxiety but is experiencing Separation Anxiety Disorder.

Is It Common in Babies?

Yes, every child faces separation anxiety to a certain degree when their parent or caretaker is separated from them.




The question that may arise is when does separation anxiety occur? Separation anxiety in babies starts around the age of 6 months to 10 months and can generally last until they are 3 to 4 years old. A baby generally starts to develop separation anxiety when he/she starts to realise object permanence (understanding that faces and objects still exist even when they cannot be observed, heard, touched, etc.).

Understanding the symptoms and causes of this situation can help a child to overcome the fears and anxiety caused by it.





Causes

There may not be a single reason which can lead a child to this condition. Here are some of the possible causes:

  • Separation anxiety can be inherited from the child’s parents or even other family members around who are stressed or anxious around the child. If a mother herself had faced stress or depression or a similar kind of disorder, then the chances of it getting transferred to the baby are high.
  • Children whose parents are over-protective may make it more difficult for their young ones to cope with separation anxiety. For example, a parent allowing a child to miss school when they don’t want to go can only lead to the child feeling more anxious the next day.
  • There are some other environmental reasons too that may trigger separation anxiety. These include the death of a pet, divorce of parents, separation from a cousin, etc.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder

Symptoms of separation anxiety can help you know the root cause of the condition. As a parent, one can prepare by noticing the change in the behaviour of their young one.




Also, a child diagnosed with SAD tends to face problems at school. Adjustment with the school becomes difficult, and if the extent of SAD is extremely high, then the child may also behave aggressively. Records suggest that SAD also leads to family conflicts.

Signs of Separation Anxiety in Babies

There are many signs which signal the occurrence of separation anxiety in children, such as:





  • Being afraid of the idea of not sleeping with parents or a caregiver
  • Having a fear of their close ones getting hurt or fearing their death
  • Constantly refusing to go to school or to play with other children
  • Having nightmares about getting separated from their loved ones
  • Wetting their bed overnight or while sleeping

How to Diagnose It?

SAD is diagnosable only if it is present in extreme conditions and levels. Otherwise, if it is minute in its existence, then it is taken as just another behavioural change.

It can be diagnosed via interviews, self-proclamation, reports by parents, observation of parent-child interaction, etc. There is also a provision for specialised assessment for preschool children. There are a variety of categories under which the assessment interviews are categorised. If you are worried about SAD in your child, please consult an expert to explore one of these diagnostic tools. The expert will also be able to assess the severity of the problem and recommend corrective measures.




How to Help your Baby with Separation Anxiety?

As a parent, you have to help your child in this condition to avoid problems in the future where he/she may continue to be upset about someone’s or something’s absence. A parent must try and get a grip on how to cure separation anxiety in babies. The following tips will be helpful in easing the child’s fears:

1. Don’t Express Nervousness in Front of the Child

Don’t let the child feel that they are going through tough times. Reassure them and make them believe they can get over the anxiety. Let them know it’s normal and it is just a phase of their growing up. Some children appreciate the fact that they are growing mature and tend to rely on it if stated accordingly.





2. Know Why Your Child Gets Anxious

Knowing the exact issues which cause anxiety in your children can prove to be a good place to start helping them to cope. Otherwise, it would become tough to talk to them or handle them.

3. Predict When They Can Be More Prone to Anxiety

Try to predict situations your child can feel distressed in and help them feel secure by comforting them in advance. It might take some time to figure this out, but it is essential to curb the anxiety.




4. Give Them Confidence

Tell them that it is okay and they are brave enough to cope with their fears and nervousness. Praise them for their little achievements and give them small, easy tasks, so that they gain confidence. Developing positive environment around them can really be helpful. A familiar perfume, a photograph, or even a belonging of their parents can make them feel safer. Timely encouragement can boost their morale to a great extent, and this will also assure them that you are always there by their side.

5. Let Them Play Outside

Playing and interacting with other children and people in the neighbourhood can help them relax. It will take their mind off the continuing trauma and help them forget it for some time.





How to Prepare a Baby for Separation?

It is recommended to help your child learn the basics of how to feel safe even when you are away. Doing this early will simplify the task of coping with separation anxiety.

1. Choose a Person They Will Be With When You’re Away

Select someone whom the baby feels comfortable with in his usual activities. Let them change his/her diaper, make them take a bath with the baby, and let them take walks or play together. It is a start of making your child comfortable with someone other than you so that there is a backup. This way, they get to realise that it is vital for them to be with other people too.




2. Let Them Know When You Leave; Don’t Sneak Away

Make a fun ritual for saying goodbye. If you go away when they are distracted, and they discover your absence afterwards, it may cause greater stress in your child and make them aggressive too.

3. Stay Connected

Occasionally, calling or sending them a greeting card to convey that you are with them even though you are not physically present, helps. Convey that you care for them and that you will be there if they are upset.


4. Tell Them Why You Go Away

While you may think that your child is too young to understand your situation, your body language can express a lot, which they can understand. Tell them about the reasons for your departure and arrival too.

5. Realise The Bigger Picture

It may be difficult for you and your child initially, but both parents should trust that the children have it in them to come out stronger. Don’t be overly protective of the child, and let him express himself. Believe that one day, everything will turn out as you planned and he will not be distressed when you are away.

Reducing Baby’s Clinginess

Tearful, hesitant goodbyes are usual in a child’s early years. Teaching them to gradually overcome their fears is important for treatment for separation anxiety.

While becoming independent, children will sometimes feel unloved. However, it is just a part of their development. Hold their hands when they need to be held and let them go when you think they are ready to be released. Some babies take more time than others. So, don’t compare your child with someone else’s. Clinginess usually resolves itself on its own, as the baby grows up and becomes independent.


How to Handle Bedtime Separation Anxiety?

  • Regular bedtime activities: Try to make the environment and activities associated with bedtime predictable. Try not to experiment too much with their bedtime schedule
  • Keep dim lights beside them: When you are not around them, it helps them feel less tensed
  • Let them know you check on them after you leave: This will help them know that you are always just around the corner.
  • Physical interaction: Hug them or kiss them when you put them to bed
  • Teach them to entertain themselves: Encourage independent playtime. Keep a toy with them, and let them play on their own until they get tired and feel sleepy

Are There Any Preventive Measures?

There are several prevention measures for separation anxiety disorder. However, it is important to understand the signs properly and start implementing these precautions early on:

1. Keep Goodbyes Short

A short and simple goodbye, maybe with a hug or kiss, is recommended. Make sure you don’t make it long, even if the child feels bad about it. In the long run, it will only help them

2. Be Fearless as a Parent

As a parent, try not to express negative emotions when you go away from them or meet them after a while. Children can learn to develop emotions from your anxieties and tensions

3. Learn How to Leave

Gradually train your child by leaving for an extended time. Be away from them for five to ten minutes initially. Then, increase this time day by day until the time when he/she loses the fear of being without you


4. Control Your Emotions Upon Meeting

Don’t go overboard with affection right when you meet after a while. Restrain yourself from showing feelings which can feed their fears. Temporary separation should be presented as a matter of course instead of as a special event

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development. Although it might be frustrating initially, your efforts are sure to pay off and help you raise a confident child in the long run. In case none of the above solutions seem to be helping or your child displays severe symptoms such as aggression, age-inappropriate tantrums, or persistent refusal to go to school, consult an expert.