Sometimes parents find it challenging to recognize the signs of separation anxiety in children. After all, it’s perfectly normal for children to go through stages during which they don’t want to be apart from their parents.
The primary phase like this is just before or after the child turns about one year of age. It may last until the child is two or three years old.
Of course, this can vary greatly depending on a child’s unique developmental needs. Furthermore, a child’s environment can affect their comfort with separation.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
That said, if a child is over the age of eighteen months, then their inability to let a parent go could mean they need a little bit of help with the process. If a child is school-aged and the fear lasts longer than six weeks, then they might have an anxiety disorder.
Look for these four signs of separation anxiety:
1. Excessive Worry About Danger When Apart from Parent
This is one of the most common signs of separation anxiety. On one hand, the child may fear that something will happen to them if the parent isn’t there to protect them. On the other hand, the child may fear that something terrible will happen to the parent when they are out of sight.
Nevertheless, the fear is persistent, ongoing, and unrealistic.
In some cases, the child will express this fear directly. More commonly, they express it in roundabout ways.
For example, they might ask their babysitter repeatedly if mom is okay whenever she is out. Similarly, they might talk frequently about car accidents, kidnappings, and other potential dangers.
2. Clinginess and Refusing to Part from Parent
Alternatively, the child may simply exhibit clingy behavior without the ability to express the fear directly.
For example, they may not want to be alone even to sleep. Or, they may refuse to go to school.
These are signs of separation anxiety, especially as a child gets older. Remember, it’s common for a child to be a little worried about the first day of kindergarten.
On the other hand, it’s not common for a child to throw a temper tantrum every single day because they don’t want to go to school.
3. Physical Signs of Separation Anxiety
Children often develop physical symptoms in response to emotional stress. Therefore, your child might complain about an illness.
Headaches and stomachaches are the most common complaints. However, your child might complain of everything from backaches to “just not feeling well.”
In most cases, the child’s illness shows up just before they are supposed to separate from the parent. In contrast, they are symptom-free when the parent is present.
4. Nightmares and/or Bedwetting
Children with separation anxiety often have symptoms that manifest in their sleep.
For example, they may wet the bed even though they are potty-trained. They may also have nightmares. In particular, children may have nightmares about getting separated or lost from their parents.
Similarly, their bad dreams might be about parents dying or getting hurt.
How to Help Your Child If You See Signs of Separation Anxiety
Remember that your child is going through something distressing. Don’t dismiss your child’s feelings. Additionally, don’t allow their fears to dictate your behavior. In other words, don’t stay home with your child because they are throwing a tantrum about separation.
Here are some good ways to help your child as they cope with separation anxiety:
• Open up communication. Listen to your child discuss fears. Validate their feelings. However, remind them of other recent times that you’ve been separated, focusing on how you both got through that.
• Create routines particularly around transitions. For example, create step-by-step routines for going to school and getting ready for bed. If a child’s life is predictable then there is less anxiety.
• Similarly, set clear rules and boundaries. For example, it is a rule that your child has to go to school even if they don’t want to. Let them know what you expect.
• Encourage your child’s interests. The more activities that your child truly enjoys away from you, the easier it will be to separate.
• If you anticipate a separation anxiety trigger, then offer choices. For example, you know that going away for a business trip will heighten the child’s anxiety. If possible, offer them the choice of staying with the babysitter or at grandma’s house. Giving them a little bit of choice can provide some sense of control.
If you recognize some of the signs of separation anxiety in your child, then therapy might help. Learn more about child counseling here.