Separation anxiety commonly occurs in children and usually peaks at the age of 1 and continues till the age of 3. It is natural for a child to become extremely anxious or upset when experiencing separation from their caregiver or close attachment figures.
In fact, we would expect that most people experience this when they are young. While separation anxiety can be distressing, it is a sign of secure attachment to their caregiver. Secure attachment is critical for healthy social and emotional development of the child. On the other hand, a lack of separation anxiety could be a symptom of insecure attachment or other developmental issues. As such, separation anxiety is often not a cause for concern and parents or caregivers should not be too worried by it because separation anxiety fades as they become older.
Nonetheless, children that continue to experience repeated, prolonged, and high levels of anxiety may have Separation Anxiety Disorder
. This disorder interferes with everyday activities like attending school or simple activities.
When Is It A Concern?
Separation anxiety becomes a concern when it causes significant distress or impairment in you or your child.
Potential signs of Separation Anxiety Disorder include:
- Extreme paranoia about the safety of caregivers
- Unwillingness or inability to go to sleep without being near you
- Separation-related nightmares (e.g., being kidnapped, death of caregiver)
- Clingy behavior and excessive need for caregiver’s attention (e.g., following them around all the time, throwing of tantrums if caregiver leaves)
- Complaints about feeling sick when separated
What causes Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Separation anxiety first appears when babies begin to understand object permanence, which refers to the understanding that people and objects continue to exist, even when you cannot see or hear them. This understanding typically develops around 6-12months. However, at this age, they still lack the understanding of time and are not able to predict when their caregiver will return. As such, they naturally, experiences fear and becomes anxious.
Typically, separation anxiety will gradually drop as a child grows older. However, several factors may cause this anxiety to persist:
- extended absence of caregiver
- the birth of a new sibling
- the loss of a caregiver
- an unfamiliar caregiver
- abrupt changes to home or childcare environment
- caregiver’s distress, which the infant may pick up on
- feeling tired, hungry, or sick
- trauma or adverse life events related to separation
When to Seek Help?
Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder are more vulnerable to developing depression, other anxiety disorders and dependent personality disorders at a later age. Furthermore, they are more likely to experience disturbance in their academic learning and in their daily activities as they refuse to go to school and are less likely to interact with peers. This would inadvertently negatively affect their overall development.
Thus, early intervention is key.
Early treatment can help to reduce these symptoms and improve your child’s life trajectory. If you notice signs of Separation Anxiety Disorder for a prolonged period of at least 4 weeks, consult a professional as soon as possible
How can Separation Anxiety be Treated?
Psychotherapy is an effective treatment for children with Separation Anxiety Disorder. In more severe cases, medication, alongside with psychotherapy, can help to ease some of the anxiety symptoms. To find out more about how a psychologist can help support a child with Separation Anxiety Disorder, click here