What Is Separation Anxiety And What Are Its Symptoms?

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Around 10 months of age, you may notice that your child becomes more anxious when he is away from you. Every time you move out of his sight or assign someone else to look after him, even if you’re in the next room, he gets upset and cries. When you put him to sleep he refuses to let you leave him and may wake up during the night looking for you. This developmental stage is known as Separation Anxiety. Your child has not yet learned that parents continue to exist and will return, even if they are in the next room. This stage reaches its peak between 10 and 18 months and continues until 2 to 4 years.

How you can make separations easier

Do you know that you shouldn’t avoid separation tantrums by slowly leaving without your child knowing? Experts agree that this act can cause more stress for the child. Instead, you can offer him a quick but loving goodbye, even if your child continues to cry and scream.

There are several strategies you can use to help your child (and yourself) through this difficult time.

• Timing is everything

Try not to start kindergarten or nursery between the ages of 8 months and 1 year, when separation anxiety is likely to first appear. Also avoid entrusting the care of your child to a stranger during this time period. If you intend to leave the house, plan your departure after he sleeps or after he has eaten.

• The gradual acquaintance with various people and places

If you plan to leave your child with a relative or someone unknown to the child to look after him, then invite this person to your home in advance so that they can spend some time together him in your presence. If your child is going to a nursery or kindergarten for the first time, visit the place together a few times.

• Be calm and consistent

Create a ‘ritual’ to say goodbye to your child, to say a pleasant, tender and firm goodbye. Stay calm and trust your child. Reassure him by saying you’ll be back to get him. Explain what time you’ll be coming to pick him up using concepts he’ll understand (like after dinner or after he wakes up).

• A favorite object

Help your child choose a favorite object. This object (transitional object) can be a small blanket, a sheet or a teddy bear. This is a healthy way to minimize separation anxiety, as contact with it will reassure the child. Try to keep in mind that this stage of separation anxiety
is temporary and that each child will express their anxiety differently. If your child has never had care other than yours, if he is shy or if other stressful situations occur, such as the arrival of a baby or health problems, then this stage will be more intense to him than in other children.

Separation Anxiety

When Does Separation Anxiety Become a Disorder?

Children who develop this disorder fear losing their family and are often convinced that something bad will happen when they are away from their parents. Other symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder are:

• Panic symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting or difficulty breathing) or panic attacks before a parent leaves or before going to school.
• Recurring nightmares about separation.
• Unexplained worry about being lost or kidnapped.

If intense separation anxiety continues to elementary school and beyond, then you should talk to a specialist.

Separation anxiety: causes and treatment by age

How many of us have felt despair in the face of our baby crying when we leave his field of vision or our child when we leave the house? And yet, no matter how common it is, we haven’t made a mistake. This is a normal state that requires our own love and care. 

Separation Anxiety in infancy

Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage that most babies go through. It manifests itself most strongly towards the mother, but not exclusively towards her, because the baby begins to realize that he and the mother (or other primary caregiver) are not one, but two different entities. 

Until about 9 months, the baby considers the mother as an extension of its body. Around that age, most babies begin to understand that they can be separated from their mother: a thought they deeply resent. Separation anxiety in infancy is a sign of secure attachment to the parent: it means that a secure, positive, good bond has developed between the infant and the parent, and the infant feels safe in the presence of that parent.

Separation anxiety, in addition to being normal, is also functional: it serves the survival of the infant (or child) in conditions perceived as dangerous. It is the only way he has to protect himself, when he does not feel safe: to ask for the safety and protection of his mother (or any adult he feels more familiar with).

Other signs of separation anxiety in infancy are: 

  • worrying or crying when a new person comes into the room 
  • when someone other than the main caregivers holds the baby (even if they are familiar faces) 
  • refusal to remove the baby from the parents
  • refusal to play alone (even in infant activities that until recently he enjoyed doing alone)  
  • refusal to accept care from new or different persons. 

Additional manifestations include difficulty sleeping or a change in previous sleep patterns. For example, the baby may wake up earlier, go to bed later, or wake up frequently in the night looking for its parents. The extent and intensity of separation anxiety can vary greatly from child to child.

When Does Separation Anxiety Start?

It usually appears in around 9 months, although, more rarely, in some babies, it can appear as early as in 6 months. It often remains intense for up to 18 months, when its second escalation usually occurs after its initial appearance.

When does it finish?

It is difficult to determine how long separation anxiety lasts. For some babies it lasts a few months, for other children it can last up to 3 or 4 years.Also, separation anxiety that had subsided, can reappear or escalate due to a change in circumstances (e.g., weaning, start of day care, separation of parents, arrival of a new member in the family, etc.). So, the answer to when separation anxiety ends is not the same for everyone.

Separation anxiety and breastfeeding: is there a correlation?

Breastfeeding does not appear to be associated with separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage that most babies go through, regardless of whether they are breastfed. Research shows that breastfeeding has the potential to strengthen the mother-infant bond (“secure attachment”). Breastfeeding mothers may choose to breastfeed to meet the baby’s needs during separation anxiety, as it is an immediate and effective way to bond. 

Weaning is difficult for many children, when they do not choose it but it is the mother’s initiative. Weaning has the potential to cause separation anxiety.Therefore, it is likely to escalate if it coincides with a period when the child manifests it strongly.

It is preferable if we can avoid weaning during the period of natural escalation of separation anxiety (around 9 months for most babies, and again around 18 months), and not coincide with other major changes in the baby’s life (e.g., divorce, moving house, starting daycare, etc.).

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety in children

As we mentioned above, separation anxiety appears in infancy, around 9 months, and can last until the child is 3 or 4 years old. During long periods of transition and major life changes, separation anxiety can resurface, for children of all ages, teens and adults. 

Separation anxiety in children is a normal reaction to perceived danger, when they are going to be in a situation outside their comfort zone, to do something new that scares them (e.g., changing schools) or when they are in periods of big changes (e.g., divorce, moving house, bereavement, etc.)

Separation anxiety and Daycare

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of infant development and happens to most babies, regardless of their daily care (e.g., if they are cared for at home by a parent, a relative, if they go to daycare, etc.). Any major changes that occur during the natural period of separation anxiety have the potential to escalate it. 

Starting nursery, kindergarten, or any other form of daycare, are examples of such big changes and have the potential to reset or escalate already existing separation anxiety.Where possible, it is preferable for these changes to occur before or after intense periods of separation anxiety. 

Where this is not possible, very gradual introduction of changes is preferable. For example, for babies starting a new form of day care, a 4- to 6-week transition is recommended. In the first week they visit the new place twice, one hour each time. In the second week, double this duration (two or three times, for two hours at a time). In the third week increase to three to four times, for half a day at a time. The fourth week to go every day, for six hours a day. 

This guide is approximate of course, and if the parent is able to extend the transition period to six weeks, or even more, that would be even better. This period gives the child the opportunity for a smooth familiarization and transition from the home to the school environment.

How is separation anxiety connected to sleep?

Any major changes in a child’s life have the potential to resurface and rekindle separation anxiety. Changing sleeping arrangements is one of those big changes for most kids. Whether it is stopping sleeping together or a transfer from the parents’ room to his own room, or any other change in relation to sleep, it would be good to make the changes gradually and with care. 

Children up to 3 years old, but often older, need their parents equally whether it is day or night. Changes in sleeping conditions that intend to remove the child from the parents (e.g., stop sleeping together) should be as slow and gradual as possible, to give the child a chance to adjust smoothlyThus, separation anxiety related to sleep is more easily reduced. 

Is there pathological separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is not considered pathological by positive psychology experts. It is considered a normal developmental stage of infancy and a normal reaction to stimuli that cause a sense of danger at any age. The easiest way to deal with it is through a secure relationship with the primary caregiver and meeting the child’s emotional needs.

Treating separation anxiety by age

Separation anxiety manifests itself in infancy for the first time, usually around 9 months (many parents notice separation anxiety at 7 months as well). Many babies see an escalation of separation anxiety again around 18 months. For some babies it subsides around the second year, for others it lasts until 3 or 4 years. It can re-emerge at times of great change at any age.

Gradual transition and slow introduction of big changes is a good idea at any age. If the mother is to return to work and the baby starts daycare or care by a relative, it is advisable to follow a very gradual introduction of the new condition, as described above, over a period of four to six weeks. 

Similarly, in case of weaning, moving house, or any other major change, it is good to allow a corresponding period of adjustment. With older children, it is helpful for the parent to prepare them for big changes by talking at a level they understand. 

Other helpful ways are telling relevant stories, role-playing, drawing, audio-visual material and visiting the places related to the change, where possible (e.g., when changing school, house or city).

Recognizing changes and the end of a situation helps. 

  • For younger children, always say goodbye when you leave, showing your care and love. 
  • For older children, discuss with them what the end of a situation means or the beginning of a new one. 
  • For children of all ages, allow and welcome the expression of their big feelings. 

It’s helpful for them to have the permission and space to express their fear, dissatisfaction, or whatever else they’re feeling in front of you. This way, they can acknowledge their emotions, process them and regulate them.

At every age, children benefit from a stable and predictable daily routine.  This gives them a sense of security and prepares them to better accept any changes that arise.

Separation Anxiety

Children rely on adults to interpret the world and their feelings

It’s helpful to avoid too many big changes at once. For example, if you are returning to work after maternity leave, try not to wean at the same time. If you are weaning, do not stop sleeping together at the same time. If an older child is expecting a new sibling, avoid moving house at the same time. It’s a good idea to allow at least three months between major changes where possible.

At every age, children rely on adults to interpret the world and their feelings. They seek security in the reactions of trusted adults. The parent’s attitude and emotional self-control are key to the child’s emotional self-regulation.

As much as possible, maintain an attitude of calm, self-control and self-confidence. Give your child the message, verbally and non-verbally, that he is safe and that you are there for him, whatever it is that scares him. At the same time, don’t be afraid to share your difficult feelings when they take over. 

Children of all ages need your time, your care and your interest to effectively manage their separation anxiety.

  • With older children, explore the cause of their fear and deal with it together. 
  • With younger children, offer them contact and play. 

Separation anxiety in infants (up to about 2 years old) can be very intense, for a long time. Parental self-care is key. Don’t neglect your mental health and your own needs, physical, mental, cognitive and emotional. Take frequent breaks, take care of your diet and sleep as much as you can. Go for a walk, ask for help from loved ones and do whatever you need to be able to meet your baby’s needs. 

It is normal for your child’s separation anxiety to cause you anxiety as well. It’s nature’s way of making sure you meet your child’s needs. Recognize this as a normal reaction of your baby and yourself, don’t go against this need, and do what you can to meet it.

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