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Separation Anxiety

Help for your child

Separation anxiety is a normal development stage in children between 8 to 14 months of age. It demonstrates a normal attachment between the child and primary caregiver (usually the mother). Since a child at this age has little understanding of time, he or she does not know when, if ever, the parent will come back. A child will protest to the separation of a parent by screaming and crying. Normally, this displeasure will abate within 20 minutes of the initial separation, and the child will become occupied with other things.

How to Deal with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is hard for both the parent and the child, but there are things that can be done to make it easier. Most importantly, a parent should not avoid bouts of separation anxiety by sneaking away when the child is not looking. This will produce even more anxiety in the child. Instead, establish a loving good-bye routine, and tell the child when you will be back in terms that they will understand, as in after lunch. It is important that the parent returns when they say they will, and eventually the child will remember that the parent always comes back. This gives them the coping skills and independence they will need later in life. When a parent says good-bye, they must mean it; returning only makes things worse.

Another thing that can be done to ease separation anxiety is to establish a basic routine. Timing is important, and leaving a child at the wrong times can cause heightened anxiety. A parent should try to avoid enrolling a child in day care between 8 and 12 months because this is when separation anxiety first presents itself. It is not a good idea to leave a child when he or she is hungry, restless or tired, because these discomforts serve only to increase their anxiety. Instead, it's better for a parent to plan their departure after a nap and a meal.

Prepare for separation by introducing new people and places gradually. Invite a new caregiver over to spend time with the child and parents. Practice leaving the child with a caregiver for short periods of time. Before sending a child to a day care, a parent should take the child there a few times beforehand.

Separation anxiety that continues into preschool and elementary school can be a bit more of a problem. In older children, separation anxiety manifests itself in a continuous fear that a parent will be lost forever. It may be accompanied by panic symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath or panic attacks before a parent leaves. An older child might have reoccurring nightmares about separation, worry about being lost or kidnapped or fear going somewhere without a parent. These could be signs of a more serious condition known as separation anxiety disorder.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety disorder can debilitate many areas of a child's life from social functioning to academic performance and even job performance. If a child's separation anxiety lasts into preschool or overtly disables a parent from leaving, the parent should talk to the child's doctor about it. Only about 4 percent of children and young adults experience separation anxiety disorder, and most grow out of it eventually. This disorder is often associated with symptoms of depression, such as sadness, withdrawal, apathy and difficulty concentrating.

The most important thing for a parent to do is to be calm, loving and firm. Say what you mean, and do as you say. As hard as it is, just remember, it's a phase and it will pass. Not every child is the same, and not every child will get over their separation anxiety at the same age. It takes patience and understanding, and the child will be better off learning to cope and gaining independence and confidence in themselves and their parents.

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