During the developmental stage, it is not unusual for children to experience anxiety when separated from their primary caregiver, as they are unable to understand time at this early age. This is a normal occurrence between the ages of eight and 14 months and is referred to as separation anxiety.
When older children or adolescents experience these symptoms, it may be due to separation anxiety disorder. If anxiety or fear causes distress or affects one’s social, academic, or job functioning for at least one month it is considered to be separation anxiety disorder. It is often associated with symptoms of depression, such as sadness, withdrawal, apathy, or difficulty in concentrating, and such children often fear that they or a family member might die. Young children experience nightmares or fears at bedtime.
About four percent of children and young adolescents suffer from separation anxiety disorder, which is equally distributed between boys and girls..
The remission rate with separation anxiety disorder is high, however there are periods where the illness is more severe. Sometimes the condition lasts many years or is a precursor to panic disorder with agoraphobia. Older individuals with separation anxiety disorder may have difficulty moving or getting married and may, worry about separation from their own children and partner.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder
• Excessive distress when separated from the primary caregiver
• Worry about losing or harm coming to the primary caregiver
• Recurrent reluctance to go places because of fear of separation
• Reluctance to go to sleep without the significant adult nearby
• Repeated physical complaints
• Symptoms last four weeks or longer
• Symptoms begin before 18 years of age
• Impairment of school, social or personal functioning
Causes of Separation Anxiety
Although the cause of separation anxiety disorder is unknown, children from close-knit families may develop this disorder due to a stressful event, such as a death or illness within the family, a move, or some form of trauma, especially physical or sexual assault. This disorder sometimes runs in families, however the exact role of genetic and environmental factors has not been determined.
Treatment of Separation Anxiety
Treatments for older children and adolescents may include counseling for the parents and child/adolescent, changes in parenting techniques, and anti-anxiety medications. For younger children, a parent or caregiver can do the following:
• Schedule departures after naps/mealtimes as children are more susceptible to separation anxiety when tired, hungry, or sick,
• Prepare children in advance by reassuring him/her that you will return. Treat the anxiety seriously and react with understanding, patience, and confidence.
• Stay calm, matter-of-fact and, sympathetic.
• Since young children learn faster when receiving attention and affection, create feelings of security by giving lots of love and attention.
• Practice short-term separations around the house.
• Do not sneak away from your child, this will cause them to be more guarded.
• Maintain control over your own anxieties—appearing distressed about leaving may cause the child to think something is wrong and become anxious themselves.