What is a separation anxiety disorder in children?
Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is a condition in which a child becomes fearful and nervous when away from home or a parent.
Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder usually show up in preschool and early elementary school. In rare cases, it can show up later, like when a child starts middle school.
Causes of separation anxiety disorder:
As infants grow, their emotions and reactions to the world around them seem to occur in a predictable order. Before 8 months, infants are so new to the world that they lack a sense of what is normal and safe and what may be dangerous. As a result, new settings or people seem to not frighten them.
From 8 to 14 months, children often become frightened when they meet new people or visit new places. They recognize their parents as familiar and safe. When separated from their parents, they feel threatened and unsafe.
Separation anxiety is a normal stage as a child grows and develops. It helped keep our ancestors alive and helped children learn how to master the world around them.
It usually ends when the child is around 2 years old. At this age, toddlers begin to understand that parents may be out of sight now but will return later. It’s also normal for them to test their independence.
To get over separation anxiety, children need to:
- Feel safe in their home.
- Trust people other than their parents.
- Trust that their parents will return.
Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder:
The anxiety that children with separation anxiety disorder feel are much more than what is normal for their age.
Signs that a child might have separation anxiety disorder include:
- Problems saying goodbye to parents
- Fear that something bad will happen to a family member during separation
- Tantrums when they have to leave parents
- The overwhelming need to know where parents are, and be in touch with them by phone or texting
- Constantly following one parent around the house
- Nightmares about bad things happening to family members
- Physical symptoms like stomachaches, headaches, and dizziness
- Refusing to go to school or on playdates
Younger children are most anxious at the time of separation. Older kids get anxious when they think about an upcoming separation.
A diagnosis of separation anxiety requires anxiety at being separated from parents that are beyond what is considered normal for a child’s age. The symptoms have to show up most of the time for at least four weeks and cause serious problems in the child’s daily life.
Separation anxiety disorder most often begins in childhood, but may continue into the teenage years and sometimes into adulthood.
Risk factors may include:
- Life stresses or loss that result in separation, such as the illness or death of a loved one, loss of a beloved pet, divorce of parents, or moving or going away to school
- Certain temperaments, which are more prone to anxiety disorders than others are
- Family history, including blood relatives who have problems with anxiety or an anxiety disorder, indicates that those traits could be inherited
- Environmental issues, such as experiencing some type of disaster that involves separation
There’s no sure way to prevent separation anxiety disorder in your child, but these recommendations may help.
- Seek professional advice as soon as possible if you’re concerned that your child’s anxiety is much worse than a normal developmental stage. Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce symptoms and prevent the disorder from getting worse.
- Stick with the treatment plan to help prevent relapses or worsening of symptoms.
- Seek professional treatment if you have anxiety, depression so that you can model healthy coping skills for your child.