Being anxious to see mommy walking away from you on the first day of preschool is natural; screaming, vomiting, believing the teacher to be a kidnapper and lashing out at everyone around is not. This is an extreme example of the behaviour of a child suffering from separation anxiety disorder, but even with less exaggerated symptoms, it can be a challenge to live with or parent a child with it.
The way to distinguish between normal anxiety and separation anxiety disorder is the same as almost any anxiety disorder - does it interfere significantly with the person’s functioning in everyday life? Here are some of the symptoms that suggest the anxiety merits more attention than usual (the ‘attachment’ may refer to a caregiver or place of security):
- excessive distress when leaving the attachment (or anticipating it), sometimes to the point of complaints of, or actual physical ailments such as vomiting, headaches and stomach pain
- refusal to leave the attachment, even for required purposes like school or sleeping in a separate bedroom, or fun activities such as a sleepover
- constant, overbearing, irrational fear of events that would lead to a separation such as damage to the attachment or they themselves being kidnapped; often persists into nightmares
Due to a baby's obvious reliance on its parents, separation anxiety is not typically diagnosed until the child is of schooling age.
Image credit Quinn Dombrowski
Many of the techniques for alleviating separation anxiety disorder revolve around small steps to work up to a clean separation, just as you would wean a child off of parental contact before they develop the disorder. HelpGuide.Org suggests:
- practice separation by leaving the child with a caregiver for short periods of time repeatedly
- develop a goodbye ‘ritual’ such as a special word or phrase to act as a promise you exchange with the child that you will return
- try to establish familiarity with wherever you go and keep the same alternate caregiver
- leave promptly when you say you will and do not ‘give in’ or return/stay once you have declared you are leaving
- schedule all of the above exercises after naps or meals since the symptoms are often aggravated by fatigue or hunger
- minimise exposure to potentially frightening material on subjects such as kidnapping or bedroom monsters while the symptoms are strong
Lawrence Robinson et al. (2013). Separation Anxiety in Children. [ONLINE] HelpGuide.org. Available at: www.helpguide.org/mental/separation_anxiety_causes_prevention_treatment.htm. [Last Accessed 13.12.13].
Psych Central. (2013). Separation Anxiety Disorder Symptoms. [ONLINE]Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2013, from http://psychcentral.com/disorders/separation-anxiety-disorder-symptoms/