Did you know separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood? Typically, separation anxiety occurs in toddlerhood and the preschool years. The anxiety normally occurs at the time of separation, the distress is a few minutes in duration, the behaviors aren’t severe, and the anxiety will go away as your child becomes more comfortable with the routine.
Separation anxiety is the brain’s way of telling your child: “Stay close to your parent, s/he will keep you safe.” In a way, it’s a good thing because it gives you an opportunity to check in with your child about what’s safe and what’s not, provide reassurance, and encourage independence.
Separation anxiety that’s not normal looks like: your child clinging to you, excessively crying, telling you he’s worried or fearful, getting angry, running away or hiding in order to avoid leaving you, expressing that his heart pounds or feels nervous, complaining of stomach aches or headaches*, or using stall tactics to avoid separation.
So how do you know for sure that your child’s separation anxiety is normal or not? Read below for the 6 items to watch out for.
When to be concerned:
If the anxiety is recurrent: It’s problematic if the separation anxiety is happening for a long period of time after you would normally expect your child to get used to the routine of separating. Some examples of that would be: your child still becomes anxious at school drop off even though he has consistently gone to the same classroom, to the same teacher, on the same days; or in divorced families when your child is visiting the other parent and has done so consistently, for a period of time.
If the anxiety is excessive: Tears and a sad face are one thing, but if your child is inconsolable, that’s another. If your child is difficult to soothe, red in the face, upset to the point of vomiting or choking, and is screaming and unable to transition to an activity, this is not normal. These are signs your child has separation anxiety that warrants additional help.
If the anxiety causes your child to dwell on frightening scenarios: You might see this more if your child is school age or older. He might tell you he worries about you. He might express fears of losing you, worry about you dying or being injured, or that you might become a victim of a disastrous situation.
If your child is reluctant to leave home: Slumber parties, camps, even school or other outings are especially anxiety producing if it means having to leave you behind. This can be particularly problematic for developing independence, confidence, or social skills.
If the anxiety is causing nightmares: This is a sign that your child’s brain has difficulty shutting off the fears. It’s common that your child doesn’t know the meaning of his nightmares. If you’re seeing any of the other signs of separation anxiety, it’s possible that the nightmares are related.
If the anxiety is accompanied with complaints about physical symptoms*: The stress of separation anxiety can produce bodily complaints like headaches, stomachache, nausea, or vomiting. These usually come on when a separation is anticipated or as it’s occurring. If your child’s doctor says there’s no sign of illness or injury, it’s possible the stress of separation might be contributing to your child feeling ill.
How Separation Anxiety Affects Your Child (And You)
Separation anxiety can impair several aspects of your child’s life. Your child may experience a loss of independence or he may dread becoming more independent. This can affect confidence and self-esteem which can impact school performance.
If your child is struggling with separating at school, this can taint your child’s perception of school, and cause him to not like school and do poorly academically. Depending on the age of your child and how observant his peers are, he might be teased because he’s “different.”
If your child lives in two different homes and struggles with separation anxiety when leaving you or his other parent, this can be a particularly delicate situation. Many parents interpret this as “something’s going on at the other house.” This can lead to suspicion and strained relations with your coparent, and will cause additional stress for your child when he senses this tension.
Worries and nightmares can keep a child up at night. This can impact your child’s sleep, and thus concentration, mood, and ability to function at school.
Separation anxiety is also stressful for you! It’s hard to walk the line between holding on to your child, and expressing confidence and encouraging the separation. Separation anxiety can pull at your heartstrings, because your child is communicating that he will only be ok if he stays with you. You know, however, that your child will be “ok” when he’s able to separate in a healthy way.
Bottom line: If you have concerns about your child’s separation anxiety after reading this, don’t despair. There are ways to help. Next week I’ll be discussing strategies that you can do to help your child separate from you in a healthy way that feels good for the both of you.
*Get any physical complaints checked out by a doctor, to rule out any underlying medical condition.
Please comment below: Has your child ever experienced separation anxiety? What did you notice your child do? How did you know whether it was typical or not?
Jenmarie Eadie is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who is passionate about helping children to become less stressed by giving them and their parents tools, support and encouragement. She received her Master’s in Social Work from Arizona State with a dual concentration in Children, Youth, and Families; and Behavioral Health.