What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a normal part of the developmental process. In children, separation anxiety is a fear of being parted from parents or caregivers. It tends to reach its peak between six months and three years old and dissipates throughout childhood. In this context separation anxiety is actually a display of healthy attachments forming between the child and caregiver. Looking for parents or caregivers in an unfamiliar situation provides comfort and familiarity in young children and can provide them with a secure base from which to explore and interact with their environment.
It’s also important to note that separation anxiety can cut both ways. Parents can feel terribly uncomfortable leaving their child, however this is a completely normal part of the process, though it might not feel like it on your child’s first day of school.
When is separation anxiety a problem?
An essential diagnostic feature of Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is an excessive fear or anxiety concerning the separation from home or parents/caregivers. This kind of anxiety needs to exceed what is normally expected when considering the child’s developmental level - the presentations are very different in infants compared to adolescents for example. The anxiety needs to last more than four weeks in children and have some features that demonstrate the excessiveness of the anxiety.
Importantly it also needs to cause clinically significant distress or impairment in important areas of a child’s functioning. In essence, separation anxiety becomes a problem when it impacts a child’s ability to function in their world at a level that would be appropriate for their age.
In young children this may present as an inability to be in a room by themselves or a reluctance to go to sleep without an attachment figure present. In adolescents it may present as school refusal and/or somatic distress (complaining of physical ailments that have a psychological cause – stomach aches, headaches etc.) particularly in the mornings before school.
Tips for dealing with separation anxiety
If your child has some tendencies towards separation anxiety, there are some practical things you can do to help them through this. Following are some tips for how to deal with separation anxiety:
Make goodbyes quick – similar to removing a bandage, drawing it out creates more discomfort. It’s also a good idea to develop a ritual around goodbyes, whether that’s a particular wave or hug, as rituals can be reassuring.
To help your child feel safe, let them take something that they love from home (especially helpful on school camps). Also be mindful of repercussions socially - provide something small and familiar that can be phased out over time, such as a pillow.
Practice separation, particularly before camps – sleep overs at a friend or family member’s place are an important part of grading your child’s exposure to the separation.
Get your child up and dressed before you make a decision on whether they are going to school (unless they’re very unwell).
Be mindful of your own feelings and anxiety, and do your best to manage them away from your child.
Where to find help
As with most mental health problems, SAD is best approached from an early intervention model. This can be a hard balance to find given some elements of separation anxiety are normal and actually healthy! As stated earlier, it becomes an issue when the anxiety is impacting your child’s ability to interact with their world in an appropriate way. At the end of the day, if you’re concerned for your child, there is no harm in asking a professional their opinion.
The Counselling Department at Trinity is staffed by registered psychologists who welcome contact from anyone in our parent community wanting to discuss concerns relating to their children. Alternatively, your GP or Paediatrician are both great resources for you and your child.
Trinity is fuelled by a pastorally aware culture with exceptionally high levels of individual student attention, and we pride ourselves on knowing, understanding and nurturing every student. To learn more about the Trinity difference and how we help boys to realise their potential, passions and purpose in life, download our Pre-Kindergarten programme information.