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How Can I Help My Child Get Over Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety might occur in children when they first begin school.
Playing a game to establish object permanence can help children overcome separation anxiety by helping them to understand that an object still exists even when it is not visible.
Separation anxiety is normal for most children.
Some children express minor separaton anxiety when asked to sleep in a location away from home.
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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 04 August 2014
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Separation anxiety in children can mean very different things. It can refer to the normal period most infants go through, usually between the ages of six months to two years, when they realize the absence of their parents, often particularly mom, and get upset because of it. This may occur when parents leave the room, put baby to bed for the night, leave a child at daycare, or with a babysitter. Even if the caretaker is familiar and liked, the baby still may protest at being left by parents.

Another form of separation anxiety occurs in older children and may be classed as mild to severe. Kids who have not been in daycare or preschool may exhibit some anxiety at the thought of going to kindergarten. This anxiety may be helped once the child is busy at school, or it can persist. More severe forms of separation anxiety in older children are a psychological disorder, akin to agoraphobia and panic disorder.

This type of separation anxiety can cause serious distress for the child and and it’s important to help a child through this, not with an iron fist, but with therapy and kindness. A child with this condition is likely to be anxious about many things, and the condition may be caused by either genetics or past trauma. In either case, and in even minor cases, it’s important not to be angry with the child, who will only get more anxious as a result.

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For the normal separation anxiety stage in early childhood, sometimes it is merely a matter of waiting for the child to recover and get through this developmental stage. There are some things you can do to help the child understand that the parent is coming back:

1. When a child starts to exhibit separation anxiety, try when possible, to keep separation from the infant short. Leave baby with a sitter and go out for an hour at most. Keep this up for a couple of weeks. Gradually extend this time, as the baby learns parents will return.

2. It can help to play games with children that help the child grasp the concept of object permanence, a developmental standard. Peek-a-boo is an easy first game that helps babies recognize that the hider is coming back and will appear from behind the hands. Also hide toys under blankets so baby can find them.

3. If you must put your child in daycare early, try if possible to choose a daycare with a low turnover rate, where you child can become bonded to caregivers who are likely to remain at their jobs. Don’t switch daycares if you can help it, since the child may experience anxiety being separated from a beloved caregiver.

4. Recognize separation anxiety as a normal developmental stage that will end. Expressing patience and helping the child muddle through it will help them become more independent children later in life.

This anxiety in older children can take many forms. Children may not wish to go to daycare or school, or they may feel anxiety primarily at night and want to sleep with mom and dad or want an adult to stay in the room until they fall asleep. Though this point is disputed, there is no proven evidence that allowing a child to climb in bed with you will foster a long-term dependence or greater separation anxiety. In fact, it may cause the opposite and help children feel more independent and confident.

Some children express minor forms of separation anxiety in being worried about sleeping away from home. They don’t want to go camping or participate in sleepovers if their parent is not there. Again, this may not be a disorder, but merely a stage, best dealt with by letting the child have their way when possible. You might consider taking the child for some overnight stays away from home to help them get used to sleeping in different places. If you force a child to stay away from home when they do not want to, you may very well subject them to humiliation by their peers for showing emotion and anxiety. This is likely to reinforce that they shouldn’t be away from home.

When separation anxiety is severe, with a child becoming anxious anytime a parent leaves, child centered therapy and family therapy are normally indicated. Addressing this issue early can help a child learn to cope with feelings of anxiety and become more confident. It can also help the child express any underlying fears that may be producing nervousness or panic.

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Discuss this Article

anon289099
Post 19

My six month old and I stay with my dad and mom. My mom looks after him. He even sleeps with her. He often cries for her if he doesn't see her. We are moving in with my husband end of this month. Will or can this affect my six month old baby?

anon285837
Post 18

I don't understand why my eight year old all of a sudden doesn't want to stay the night with friends. Anyone have a clue as to why?

maxine1966
Post 17

I have a 10 year old who is so clingy. Her dad told her he never wanted to see her again, which broke her heart. Since then I have to reassure her I would never leave her. She doesn't like staying over anywhere. She never wants me to go out. When it's bedtime, I have to be in the room until she falls asleep.

She also gives trouble going to school and she cries until she is sick. I'm in total despair as what to do. Also, she asks me constantly if I love her and of course, I always reassure her that I do.

anon173797
Post 16

My nine year old daughter, soon to be 10, is extremely anxious when it comes to sleeping over in someone else's house or when my husband and I go out for the evening and have a babysitter over.

We initially thought that she just didn't want to stay away from her home but when the sitter (her grandmother) comes over to our house she is completely beside herself crying for my husband and me. She also seems to be 'low' in mood, not wanting to get dressed at weekend and just wants to watch TV and just generally stroppy. I don't know how to get to the bottom of this problem!

anon159860
Post 15

My thirteen year old daughter has always been unable to sleepover out of our state. She has never liked to sleepover until last year, sixth grade. She can sleep at friends' houses, but not school trips.

Next week she is going to New Orleans. She never has liked her seventh grade teachers and I don't want her to get more upset about that. She doesn't want to go, but we are making her so she can get used to the idea of being away from home. What should I do so she doesn't start crying in front of everyone? What do I tell her in order for her to feel safe?

anon155999
Post 14

my four year old niece is suffering from post traumatic stress / separation anxiety after watching her Mum (my sister) come in and out of hospital after being diagnosed with cancer of the lung.

My sister had to have several operations and a few weeks of recovery in hospital over a two and a half year period. My niece was only two and a half at first diagnosis, so we thought it best not to take her to the hospital. When my sister came home with her chemotherapy port my niece would constantly try to pull it out, as she related this to somebody hurting her Mum, and she has stayed in the same frame of mind ever since, understandably, so it's obvious to assume her separation anxiety stems from this, but I feel its also justified.

It's so heartbreaking to watch this kid become so mortified at the thought of being separated from her Mum. Anybody been in the same situation that can help?

anon151308
Post 13

I have a 3 year old daughte. we just relocated to another country. and this week we just started her in preschool for three days only.

it was so bad, the shouting and crying and vomiting, they had to bring me back to calm her down. On the second day i stayed with her the whole day because she kept saying i want to go home, i hate school.

This is her first time ever away from me. how long would it take for her to stay by herself? is this normal or is it too early to put her in a a preschool? please advise me. --sam

anon136167
Post 12

I have a seven year old daughter who I believe is experiencing separation anxiety. The biggest obstacle for me is her first grade teacher is very punitive with her. If she shows any signs of being sad or upset she threatens her that if she continues, that I (mom) will not be allowed in the classroom.

Of course, this is not acceptable. parents should know that we are not the cause of anxiety disorders in our children. It is often genetic and has some precursor event (trauma which can take many forms outside of the normal trauma we often think of). As someone who works in the mental health profession, it amazes me that individuals (educators) who are in the field of working with children are not knowledgeable on a very basic level about childhood mental health issues.

anon129357
Post 11

i have the same with my nearly four year old. Every morning she struggles to let me go and the teachers and carers need to be there for her.

she has had speech delays since she was a baby, and though now she talks with me, it's still hard for her to express to me what she is thinking. I'm very patient with her and just reassure her that i will be back and remind her of all the positives of being there.

she starts big school next year and i think she may be the same, so i have been taking her to the new school quite a bit to get her used to the concept and place itself. Wish me luck.

anon128800
Post 10

I have a daughter who is 12 and showing signs of separation anxiety at night. She says she is afraid to sleep in case something happens. It has gotten to the point where she isn't sleeping well and having sleep overs at friends or family's houses is a no go. She has no problems going to school or play days it just seems to be at night. Any ideas? Help!

anon112284
Post 9

My daughter is eight years old. She has been having anxiety issues since she's been going to school. She cries and closes her eyes so she can't see anyone. She avoids listening to the teacher. I was told she gets into a fetal position and won't move.

The school diagnosed her with anxiety disorder and learning disability. She's an A or AB honor roll student. So far this year she wants me to take her to her classes every day. Half the time she doesn't let go. She was born with delayed speech. She's better with that now. She can talk.

I don't know what else to do. I thought the older she gets it will get better but it's getting worse. Does someone else have the same problems? I refuse to give up. The school is talking to be about home schooling her which she doesn't want. I think that would be isolating her when she needs to be with peers her own age.

anon87320
Post 8

My 10 year old son was just diagnosed with Separation anxiety with depression. He got depressed because he has been dealing with the separation for so long (we think since he was five).

He goes to school, gets good grades and the teachers love him, but he says some of the kids are mean. His depression was so bad he thought of suicide. He is on new meds and now it's wait and see.

anon75199
Post 6

From what I've seen it can. It does in my daughter. It is the fight or flight syndrome as explained to me by her therapist. My daughter, 8, has been suffering now for 4 months. She is suffering panic attacks when faced with going to school, seperation anxiety and has developed depression due to these issues. She is seeing a Psychiatrist and we are on medication #3 and the new combination has been working great for everything here at home but when we tried to reintroduce her to school again it started all over?

anon71350
Post 5

My seven year old, soon to be eight, suddenly started showing severe separation anxiety disorder. He cried not to go to school and it would get worse the closer we got to school. Then I found out he was being bullied by a classmate.

I spoke to the teacher and she sort of sorted the situation out. But ever since my son has not been the same. He just hates school and would make up any excuse not to go. In the morning he has tummy aches, headaches, and anything. I don't know what to do.

anon64101
Post 4

My 10 year old is having some serious anxiety about going to school and being away from home and me (mom). He gets very emotional, stomach aches, headaches, the sweats etc.

He's never had this to this extent, usually after a long school vacation or holiday he doesn't want to go but it passes once the first day is over. Now it's been a few weeks and not getting better. i will take him to see someone to help us learn to get a handle on this.

He doesn't want to eat breakfast, school is long and grueling for him with all the aches and pains of the anxiety. He is a smart kid, making As and Bs and the teachers love him but it is really beginning to affect him now.

He's pretty much back to his normal self once home until bedtime and when morning comes again it starts all over.

I feel so bad making him go to school all upset. i hope we can get the help we need to get him through this stage in his life!

anon53057
Post 3

My 10 year old son, suddenly doesn't want to go to school. he is a bright child and he is suddenly depressed and sad. he doesn't care about anything.

siewha
Post 2

I have the problem of my daughter aged 9 yrs who does not want to go school without being accompanied by me or my mom. It has been going on like this for two years plus now. Need help, anyone ever experience the same problem like this, please help. Thanks from siewha

beasterly
Post 1

I would like to know if separation anxiety disorder in older children (around age 10-12) can cause acting out, serious behavior issues, defiance, etc. If so, what can be done to help?

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