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Separation Anxiety: How to Help Your Child

Aug 17, 2007
Many parents with young children have wondered if their child's anxiety and distress on parting is normal or excessive. First time parents especially may question whether professional help is needed. If your child's anxiety has been a concern for you, read on to learn more about separation anxiety disorder and how it differs from ordinary anxiety commonly seen in children.

Many babies begin to seem worried and distressed about separating from a parent or caregiver around 7 or 8 months old. It may diminish for a time and then reappear as the child becomes more mobile and begins to explore her surroundings. At this stage the anxiety is developmentally normal and is not considered a disorder. It is part of the process of developing trust and a sense of being separate from others. This sort of anxiety will typically fade as the child learns it is normal for others to go away and return.

Separation anxiety disorder is distinguished from ordinary developmental anxiety by the following: extreme worry and fear when separated from parent or home, persistent and unreasonable worry that something bad will happen to him/herself or the parent, reluctance to go to ordinary outings or school because of fear of separating, difficulty sleeping alone, repeated nightmares about being separated, repeated physical complaints when separation is anticipated. The symptoms must have lasted a minimum of 4 weeks, and must be present to a level which significantly interferes with everyday functioning.

It is helpful to know how these symptoms may look in your child. Here are some examples: The child may vigorously protest being left with a babysitter, or refuse to play with peers and attend activities other children his age would normally enjoy such as birthday parties, Scouts or slumber parties. He may have many physical complaints on school mornings: tummy aches, headaches, etc. He may often ask to go to the nurse's office at school and may be sent home repeatedly, yet the physician finds no physical basis for the distress. He may express concern for the parent's safety and well being at a level that seems unusual for a child his age.

There are many things a parent can do to help a child build trust and decrease anxiety. These include listening carefully and acknowledging the child's feelings without contradicting or offering advice, honoring all commitments to the child, particularly time commitments, and reminding the child of his /her strengths. Always prepare your child for changes. Practice separating for brief periods. Many children with separation anxiety have other anxiety disorders as well, so practicing relaxation techniques such as slow, deep breathing and visualizing will give your youngster coping tools. Do not hesitate to consult a mental health professional if you are uncertain about whether your child is improving. Treatment at an early stage can help prevent the development of other anxiety disorders in later years.
About the Author
Susan Huebert, L.S.C.S.W., and Rhonda Hildreth, L.S.C.S.W., practice counseling in Wichita KS. They specialize in counseling children with play therapy.
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