Separation Anxiety in children is to be expected as babies and toddlers adjust to the world around them. They have determined that their parents or caregivers are a source of security, and therefore being deprived of that security distresses them. Concern at being separated from Mom or Dad is typical in toddlers up to about three years of age. The anxiety demonstrates that the child has formed a healthy attachment to the caregiver.
The behaviors that result from Separation Anxiety in children generally include crying when the parent or parents leave and clinging to them when they return. The anxiety usually lasts for a few minutes, but it may resurface when the parent returns, as the child remembers how upsetting it was when the parent left in the first place. Children may also become very quiet and refuse to interact with the people around them, even if they are familiar with those people. In some cases, a child may “punish” the parents upon return by ignoring or hitting them. It is even possible for children to develop physical symptoms as a result of their anxiety. Headaches, stomachaches and muscle pain are all common.
While a child is feeling anxiety over a separation, the response is likely causing distress for the parent as well. The adults need to remind themselves that despite the child’s fear and concern, they are in a safe environment with people who will care for them. It can be difficult, but it is a necessary step in the toddler or preschooler’s development. The act of leaving the child with a trusted person helps him or her have confidence that the parent will return. It also helps children to develop a sense of their individual identities and to recognize that they are separate beings from their parents.
This phase of a child’s development generally appears late in his or her first year and persists for the next two years. However, some children may display signs longer than others. The negative behaviors or physical symptoms are most likely to reappear when a child is home for an extended period of time, like a school holiday, and must then return to daycare or school. It is not unlikely for a child to revert to such behaviors after a traumatic event, such as the death of a loved one or the parents divorcing.
Separation Anxiety in children also becomes more acute it they become ill or are hospitalized. Parents should make every effort to be with their children during any medical procedure. An absence can cause a serious increase a child’s anxiety and will lead to greater pain and possibly a longer recovery. When the parent can not be present, the child should know where he or she will be and should be reassured that they will be reunited.
A certain amount of Separation Anxiety is to be expected, and is even an integral part of a child’s development. Occasionally, a child may exhibit extreme behavior or it may continue or worsen as the child gets older. A child who calls home repeatedly from school because he is worried that something has happened to his parents or who refuses to go to sleepovers (or even school) due to fear of harm to his parents or himself may have developed Separation Anxiety Disorder. This disorder can be debilitating, but it is treatable. In general, Separation Anxiety in children causes a fair amount of distress, but it is simply a phase of development that leads to stronger, healthier children.