Is My Child Just Afraid? Or is it Separation Anxiety?
December 14, 2018 By Monique Johnson, MA, LCPC
School is in now session, and your child appears to cling to your leg when it’s time to enter the classroom.
Your child is terrified and will not stop crying unless you stay with them throughout the day. You decide that it’s okay; let’s try again tomorrow. However, the next day arrives and they will not get out of bed or leave the house because they know that you are dropping them off at school.
These can be super tough situations, especially for parents or guardians that work the morning shifts.
If these sound familiar to you, your child may be struggling with separation anxiety. There are a various levels of separation anxiety, ranging from the extreme in certain cases–which could lead to a diagnosis–to a less intense side that can be much more manageable for families.
Fear and anxiety are normal emotions that we all experience.
Going to school for the first time on the first day of school can be very scary for any child. Children are able to push through and do new things that are scary because that fear is not so strong that it is inhibiting them from doing it. When this fear becomes overwhelmingly powerful and inhibits your child from performing daily tasks, that normal anxiety becomes an anxiety disorder.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), anxiety disorders are a very common mental health concern in the Unites States; there are a variety of anxiety diagnoses such as Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Separation Anxiety Disorder, etc.
Many children experience separation anxiety in an early stage of development; this anxiety should subside, however, as the child reaches their fourth birthday.
Unfortunately, this does not always occur and in some cases you may notice extreme separation concerns prior to their fourth birthday that will call for attention very early on. Children can continue to struggle with this throughout their childhood and into adolescence. This anxiety becomes a major concern when it interferes with daily life activities such as going to school, making friends, or remaining in environments without their parents. If the anxiety is super intense and lasts for months at a time, then it could be separation anxiety disorder.
Separation Anxiety for Younger Children
This anxiety can look different for each child, but it is critical to be able to recognize the signs. Separation anxiety should be manageable and it should not last past four years old, but it can sometimes be extreme and continue on past early development.
Here are some examples: Your child refuses to go to child care or school. They may hide in different places at home to keep from going to school. Younger children will throw tantrums and cry. They may cling to you and refuse to let you go. Your child could be worried that something bad is going to happen to you after you leave them. They may ask tons of questions to gain understanding and clarity because they are super anxious of the unknown.
Separation Anxiety for Older Children
Some of the signs in younger children are similar to the reactions in older children, and some are different. Older children tend to internalize their anxiety more than younger children. They are more afraid of what other people, like their peers, will think if they see them react to being separated from their caregiver.
Older children may also refuse to go to school or stay home because they dislike school. They may send tons of messages and phone calls to their parent/guardian throughout the day and panic if they do not get a response. Older children are likely to have nightmares about being separated from their caregiver and may have difficulty sleeping at night. They may get physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches or heart palpitations because they are so anxious. Avoiding sleep-overs at others homes could also be indicator of separation anxiety. They may perhaps skip out on activities like sports or clubs because of their fear of being separated from their caregiver.
Above are just a few signs and examples to help you recognize what may be separation anxiety in your child. The good thing is that there are some methods to help your child get through this!
Ways to Support a Child with Separation Anxiety
- Allow your child to choose a meaningful object or something that holds special value to them that will help them stay calm and feel safe
- Implement a schedule/routine
- Inform your child when you are leaving and give a specific time you will be back to pick them up
- Practice small goodbyes
- Build your child up with positivity
- Have consistent people in your child’s care and environment
- Create a ritual for goodbyes
- When making a promise, keep it
- Write them a fun note that they can find in their book bag or lunchbox
So, the Separation Anxiety Just Won’t Go Away…
You are the expert of your child. If you try all of the methods above and your child continues to struggle separating from you, then you may want to consider professional help. Even if your child has not reached the age of four and you notice that they are displaying extreme separation fears, then you should also seek treatment to begin working on those areas of concern. A professional can help support you through this, and design a treatment plan unique for your child. If you are interested in our services, check out my profile page and my colleagues here at Upswing!
Anxiety Disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2018, from https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders.
For more information on separation anxiety check out these links:
Monique Johnson, MA, LCPC is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor with experience working with children, adolescents, young adults, and families. While creating a safe space for her clients to grow, she also challenges them and inspires them to be their best self. She is located at Upswing Counseling, in Wheaton, IL.