Generally speaking, it’s expected that a child, especially a young child, will get upset when leaving his or her parents, whether it’s for school, daycare, or a short time with a babysitter. In fact, as a parent, you may also feel a twinge of that same sadness and worry the first few times you have to leave your child in the care of someone else. So what factors elevate a child’s seemingly natural reaction to being separated from a parent to a more serious anxiety disorder?
Like all anxiety disorders, it has to do with proportion. A child who whimpers a bit and clings to your leg when you drop them off is relatively common. But if that same child throws a tantrum, can’t be consoled within a few minutes, or has nightmares in anticipation of being separated, to name a few symptoms, he may be experiencing Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone: SAD is the most common anxiety disorder in children. Nearly all children experience a developmental phase (sometimes as early as 7 months) that causes them stress when separated from parents.1 But approximately 1 in 10 children will experience extreme stress that qualifies as Separation Anxiety Disorder. Thankfully, SAD is relatively easy to treat with professional therapy. There are several hallmarks to look for when determining if your child may have Separation Anxiety Disorder. And remember, anxiety disorders don’t happen in a vacuum—your child may be experiencing symptoms from more than one type of anxiety.
What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Typically, Separation Anxiety impacts a child’s ability to participate in expected, age-appropriate activities, such as attending school, having play dates with friends, or participating in extracurricular activities.
A child who experiences extreme distress when separated from (or anticipating separation from) a parent or caregiver may be suffering from Separation Anxiety Disorder. This anxiety disorder typically occurs when a child has to attend school for the first time, but it can also develop earlier for children who attend daycare, spend time with a babysitter, or have parents who travel. It may also occur again (or for the first time) around age 11, coinciding with the beginning of junior high, and at the onset of puberty, around age 13 or 14. It can be triggered by a life event, such as parental illness, divorce, or another traumatic event, but this doesn’t always precipitate a case of SAD. Typically, Separation Anxiety impacts a child’s ability to participate in expected, age-appropriate activities, such as attending school, having play dates with friends, or participating in extracurricular activities.
What Are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder?
In young children, parents tend to see an exceptionally clingy child who has a need for excessive attention. He or she may want to sleep in a parent’s bed at night and, in some extreme cases, not want to be in a separate room even while at home together. For example, a toddler may not want to lose sight of a parent and may throw a tantrum when the parent closes the door to the bathroom. A 3-year-old may be unable to enjoy daycare because she remains upset all day. An older child may feign an illness in order to be sent home from school or refuse to attend school at all. Tweens and teens may even threaten self-harm. (Though these threats in relation to Separation Anxiety are rarely carried out, they should, of course, should be taken seriously.)
How Do I Know If My Child Has Separation Anxiety Disorder?
If your child has been experiencing symptoms of SAD for a prolonged period of time (typically at least 6 months, but possibly shorter depending on the severity), it’s a good idea to have him or her evaluated by a child psychologist. A psychologist will look for three or more of the following symptoms before offering a diagnosis2:
- Excessive anguish when separated (or anticipating separation) from parent or caregiver; may be clingy when with parents
- Irrational fears that something bad may happen to a parent (e.g. scared a parent will get sick or die)
- Irrational fears that something bad could lead to separation (e.g. scared of kidnapping)
- Reluctance or refusal to attend school
- Difficulty falling asleep without being near a parent; may insist on sleeping in bed with parents
- Repeated nightmares about separation
- Frequent complaints of physical symptoms (such as headache or stomach ache) when separated or anticipating separation
How Can I Help My Anxious Child?
If your child has been diagnosed with Separation Anxiety Disorder, it’s important to set up a treatment plan with a trusted psychologist. Again, Separation Anxiety Disorder is fairly common in children; however, if left undiagnosed or untreated, it can develop into more serious issues, such as depression, panic attacks, or substance abuse. There are many resources available to help your anxious child. You may want to start with our Psychologist Locator and explore additional articles on this site, including the APA-approved resources on the Bookstore page.
This article was adapted from How to Find Mental Health Care for Your Child, by Ellen B. Braaten, PhD
1 What to Do When You Don’t Want to be Apart: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Separation Anxiety Disorder, by Kristen Lavellee, PhD, and Silvia Schneider, Dr. rer. Nat.
2 How to Find Mental Health Care for Your Child, by Ellen B. Braaten, PhD, page 103
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