How To Ease Normal Separation Anxiety
For children with normal separation anxiety, there are steps you can take to make the process of separation anxiety easier.
Practice separation. Leave your child with a caregiver for brief periods and short distances at first. As your child gets used to separation, you can gradually leave for longer and travel further.
Schedule separations after naps or feedings. Babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when theyre tired or hungry.
Develop a quick goodbye ritual. Rituals are reassuring and can be as simple as a special wave through the window or a goodbye kiss. Keep things quick, though, so you can:
Leave without fanfare. Tell your child you are leaving and that you will return, then godont stall or make it a bigger deal than it is.
Follow through on promises. For your child to develop the confidence that they can handle separation, its important you return at the time you promised.
Keep familiar surroundings when possible and make new surroundings familiar. Have the sitter come to your house. When your child is away from home, encourage them to bring a familiar object.
Have a consistent primary caregiver. If you hire a caregiver, try to keep them on the job long term to avoid inconsistency in your childs life.
Minimize scary television. Your child is less likely to be fearful if the shows you watch are not frightening.
What Are The Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety
According to the American Psychiatric Associations Diagnostic Statistical Manual , the following are symptoms of separation anxiety
- Unusual distress about being separated from a person or pet
- Excessive worry that another person will be harmed if they leave them alone
- Heightened fear of being alone
- Physical symptoms when they know they will be separated from another person soon
- Excessive worry surrounding being alone
- Needing to know where a spouse or loved one is at all times.
These symptoms can cause significant distress that impacts their social occupational, or academic functioning.
According to the DSM-V, adult separation anxiety is diagnosable if the symptoms have been present for at least 6 months, the symptoms are so severe that they affect your social functioning and ability to take care of responsibilities, and if symptoms cannot be better explained by a different disorder.
Pet Separation Anxiety In Stressed
The second study was conducted by the anthrozoologists Alexa Carr and Patricia Pendry of Washington State University and was published in the journal Anthrozoos. They were interested in pet-separation anxiety in a group of stressed ownerscollege students at the beginning of their freshman year. After all, many new college students are undergoing a period of great change in their lives, including separation from their family pets.
The research was conducted in two phases. During the summer before they began college, incoming freshmen were sent an email inviting them to take part in the study. Students with pets who agreed to participate completed an online questionnaire. The items focused on attachments and interactions with their family pets but some of the items were related to their levels of stress, including having a history of mental health issues.
The second research phase was conducted two weeks after the subjects arrived on campus. This time, the students were asked to complete a questionnaire on pet-related separation anxiety. Like the Australian researchers, Carr and Pendry used a modified version of the Severity Measure for Separation Anxiety Disorder adapted to measure pet-separation anxiety. The subjects were asked, for example, to rate the frequency that, over the previous week, they had experienced feeling anxious, worried, or nervous about being separated from my pet.
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Addressing Separation Anxiety In Children
Why Does Separation Anxiety Disorder Occur
It is normal for young children to sometimes feel worried or upset when faced with routine separations from their parents or other important caregivers, and for older children and adolescents to experience mild anxiety when away from their families such as on school trips or when leaving home for the first time to attend college, university, or a job. Although less common, some adults also may have mild anxiety or fear when a boyfriend/girlfriend/spouse/parent goes away for a period of time such as on a vacation or business trip. This response is part of the fight-flight-freeze system designed to protect us from threat and danger, and in small doses is useful. However, we expect that as these situations unfold, continue, and repeat, that the individual gets used to these separations. As a result, s/he discovers there is no danger, and becomes less and less anxious and learns to cope successfully. Yet, for some adults their response to actual or anticipated separations becomes far more extreme than would be expected, and continues each and every time a separation happens. In essence, they fail to adapt and appear unable to cope. For these adults, it is possible that they may have separation anxiety disorder.
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Learn About Separation Anxiety
You can use many resources to learn about separation anxiety disorder. You can talk to a health care expert about the effects of this disorder and ways to help a friend control their symptoms. A doctor or therapist can offer tips for supporting a friend who has the condition.
The internet offers many separation anxiety resources. Many reputable organizations, like the Child Mind Institute, provide information about separation anxiety disorder. Many of these resources include information about the effects of separation anxiety and the benefits of treatment.
What Causes Separation Anxiety
Research suggests that a mix of genetic and environmental factors all play a role in separation anxiety disorder.
When separation anxiety develops during childhood, it may be caused by the loss of a parent, long-term parental absence, parental conflict, parental alcoholism or parenting styles that stop children from developing autonomy.
Factors such as being raised in foster care, adopted or constantly relocating due to a parents career may also contribute to separation anxiety.
Some risk factors for other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, may also play a role in separation anxiety.
Common risk factors for anxiety include:
Early exposure to stressful, traumatic or negative life events
A family history of anxiety or other mental disorders
Certain childhood traits, such as shyness and/or behavioral inhibition
Physical conditions, such as heart arrhythmias or thyroid disorders
Use of certain medications and stimulants, including caffeine
Our guide to the causes of anxiety provides more information about these risk factors and their impact on common anxiety disorders.
Interestingly, adult separation anxiety disorder may itself be a risk factor for other mental health conditions. People with separation anxiety disorder may be more likely to develop:
Its also common for people with separation anxiety disorder to suffer from more than one mood or anxiety disorder.
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Easing Separation Anxiety Disorder: Tips For School
For children with separation anxiety disorder, attending school can seem overwhelming and a refusal to go is commonplace. But by addressing any root causes for your childs avoidance of school and by making changes at school, though, you can help reduce your childs symptoms.
Help a child who has been absent from school return as quickly as possible. Even if a shorter school day is necessary initially, childrens symptoms are more likely to decrease when they discover that they can survive the separation.
Ask the school to accommodate your childs late arrival. If the school can be lenient about late arrival at first, it can give you and your child a little wiggle room to talk and separate at your childs slower pace.
Identify a safe place. Find a place at school where your child can go to reduce anxiety during stressful periods. Develop guidelines for appropriate use of the safe place.
Allow your child contact with home. At times of stress at school, a brief phone calla minute or twowith family may reduce separation anxiety.
Send notes for your child to read. You can place a note for your child in their lunch box or locker. A quick I love you! on a napkin can reassure a child.
Provide assistance to your child during interactions with peers. An adults help, whether it is from a teacher or counselor, may be beneficial for both your child and the other children theyre interacting with.
When To Seek Treatment
Most people worry about separation anxiety disorder when their children are going through a normal stage of early life. Knowing the difference between normal separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder saves time and a trip to the doctor. If the symptoms persist, have a severe negative impact, are excessive, or are accompanied by a traumatic event, it might be time to seek professional help. Call toll free for help finding the right treatment for you or your loved one.
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Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety
There are many signs that someone is suffering from separation anxiety, said Elizabeth Zakarin, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Columbia University Medical Center in New Yorkmany of which should not come as a surprise. First is the constant fear about the possibility of being separated from home or a loved one, even due to circumstances beyond a person’s control, such as a house fire or natural disaster.
Adults with separation anxiety disorder struggle with any situation that takes them away from their loved ones. “They may develop extreme distress and anxiety anticipating overnight business trips that require being away from their child or spouse, may have recurrent thoughts related to being separated from their loved ones, or may be overprotective of their children,” explained Allison Forti, PhD, associate director of online counseling programs at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Big life changes like going away to college, moving, or getting married can throw adults with separation anxiety for a loop.
These feelings can make it difficult to maintain relationships or keep up with everyday life. “For adults, separation anxiety disorder can have monumental consequences in their social and work life and could lead to social isolation, loss of employment opportunities or the ability to prosper at work, relational difficulties, or the ability to live a satisfying and fulfilling life,” said Forti.
Coping With Separation Anxiety At School
In early childhood, school is one of the first places where separation anxiety and related anxious behaviors may manifest, as it represents a change in routine for both children and parents.
A key component of separation anxiety is avoidance, where the most common manifestation is refusing to go to school. Behavioral symptoms of separation anxiety typically manifest in the child completely refusing to go to school but can also be characterized by irregular attendance or throwing a tantrum upon arriving at school.
Children can also experience a high degree of distress as the day goes on and even start having physical symptoms of anxiety.
Some specific techniques that may help build structure for a child experiencing separation anxiety about going to school include:
- Keeping goodbyes short and sweet
- Having a special handshake or goodbye âroutineâ upon separating
- If possible, having gradual exposure to a new school or situation by visiting the school a few weeks prior to starting and rehearsing the drop-off routine
- Having the child âact outâ scenarios where they are being dropped off or simulate activities they may do at school using their toys or siblings/family members
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What Are The Risk Factors
Those who suffer with clinical obsessive-compulsive disorder are more likely to experience separation anxiety as an adult. Furthermore, those with separation anxiety often have other coexisting conditions such as social anxiety, social phobias, panic disorder, agoraphobia, post-traumatic stress disorder , personality disorders, and generalised anxiety disorder.
It has also been found that being female, experiencing childhood adversity , or having a history of childhood traumatic events , increases your risk for adult separation anxiety. You may also be more likely to develop separation anxiety as an adult if you experienced it as a child.
Sometimes, a significant life change, such as a divorce, death, or even the recent coronavirus pandemic, can cause the development of adult separation anxiety.
However, it is important to remember that a person could have all of these risk factors and still not develop separation anxiety. Equally, a person can have none of these risk factors, but experience separation anxiety. These risk factors are a guide, but not a prediction.
Depression And Other Mental Health Issues
The consequences of chronic separation anxiety can lead to depression. The complications can be varied, depending on the people affected. A young individual with SAD may begin to exhibit some erratic behavior while at school. He might then become dependent on drugs and alcohol, followed by a more extreme case of depression.
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When Do I Need To Worry
Although it may be difficult to hear a child cry, remember that separation anxiety does have a positive aspect: It indicates that a healthy attachment has bonded a caregiver and child.
You should still watch your child to see if her separation anxiety appears extreme, says Julia F. Heberle, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. Dr. Heberle recommends analyzing the situation surrounding your childs feelings. Is there parental conflict, divorce, or something wrong with the child-care setting? If so, the symptoms of separation anxiety may be amplified. If a toddler is showing excessive symptoms, such as vomiting or unrelenting worry, contact your pediatrician.
What Is Relationship Separation Anxiety
In some cases, the separation anxiety may be severe enough to diagnose someone with separation anxiety disorder, which is “developmentally inappropriate and excessive fear or anxiety concerning separation from those to whom the individual is attached,” as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders , a manual for assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders. However, not everyone who experiences separation anxiety in relationships will meet these criteria for diagnosis. Like with anything else, separation anxiety in a relationship can look different from couple to couple and person to person it isn’t linear and can be super extreme or relatively mild.
If you think you might have relationship separation anxiety, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you or your relationship. Most people’s responses in relationships come from their childhood experiences, traumas, or unmet needs. Being aware and learning how to communicate about it is one of the most important first steps.
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Treating Separation Anxiety In Therapy
Treatment for separation anxiety revolves around identifying the clientâs fears by modifying the clientâs approach toward uncomfortable situations.
The most widely used therapeutic approach for separation anxiety or other anxiety-related disorders is Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy , specifically focused on exposure therapy.
Exposure therapy focuses on simulating the situation the individual is fearful of or the symptoms they are experiencing in a safe environment, while giving them specific tools to help them work through, rather than avoid, fearful sensations or feelings.
How To Help A Teenager With A Separation Anxiety Disorder
If your teenager is willing to open up about his feelings about separation, pay attention to them and gain their trust. Provide them with ways to understand their anxiety triggers as well as situations that cause the most anxiety. It is essential to show them that you care and support them. By recognizing their problems, they may be able to reduce the intensity of their symptoms and worries.
Assure them that the symptoms of their condition are treatable. Teenagers do not often disclose their weaknesses give them time to work on coping mechanisms independently. If the teenager has trouble coping with social activities and gatherings, the best course is to seek professional help. A specialist can provide various options for coping with their symptoms and devise the best treatment plan for their conditions.
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About The Editor Dr Malcolm Winstanley
I am a Registered Psychologist with AHPRAâs Psychology Board of Australia and a Chartered Counselling Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, UK. My formal training began with a B.A. in Psychology and Welfare at Charles Sturt University, and B.A. Psychology from the University of Wollongong. I then progressed to the M.A. Clinical Psychology at the same university before moving to the UK to undertake a PhD in Psychology from City, University of London.