Separation Anxiety in Children
Updated: Apr 27
Thoughts of parents of children with Separation Anxiety
"I want to think that Shira is a happy girl. But, every night I find myself having to soothe her until she falls asleep out of fear that someone close to her might die. She just can't relax without me. Is this normal? Does this only happen to us? Or is every family required to deal with death issues every night?".
"Dan is 11 years old and still sleeps in bed with us every night. I know this is a problem. He just needs us to fall asleep, he can't do without us. I'm afraid he doesn't sleep at all if we're not near him. I keep thinking that he will grow up and this custom will pass. It's clear to me that he would be very embarrassed if his friends found out about it, so we don't talk about it. Is it fear? habit? Should we get mad at him? punish him? continue with it? My wife and I have no private time together. I don't know how to help him and the truth is neither do we.
Between the ages of 18-24 months, toddlers learn to run and climb stairs. Exactly at this stage, when they apply skills that give them freedom of action, another phenomenon occurs - they are stressed and want their mother. This anxiety of separation is part of the normal development necessary for their survival - they make sure that they do not separate from their source of protection. This phenomenon disappears after a few months. When a toddler runs back and forth from some activity back to the source of his protector, he conveys the sense of security that he will always be able to return to his mother's safe arms and she, in turn, will always be there for him. In the following years, the child will understand that separation contributes to survival, that freedom is positive and that the union with his mother will always come in the end. When the child will experience this again and again and reach the same conclusions each time, this will form the basis of his self-confidence and contribute to his independence. Most children will learn to say goodbye safely at the age of 5-6 and some will even experience it at a younger age.
Children with separation anxiety have a sort of "glitch" in this process, and instead of building confidence through a healthy separation process, they will experience each separation as a crisis. Such children feel safe only when the parent is present, and even then they may be disturbed that something bad might happen to the parent. Concerns of this kind, such as whether the parent is sick, happy, dying, tired or worried, disturb the child and take up a lot of his or her time. There are also thoughts that the child himself is not safe and exposed to danger without the presence of the parent. This anxiety is exhausting, both for the child and for the parent, limiting both and leading to great distress and limiting daily functioning.
Many times this difficulty can also lead to a refusal to go to school and lead to damage to the parents' employment. Many parents are late for their workplace or spend time while at work calming the child. Both in the case of separation anxiety and in the case of a panic attacks, the child will feel protected only near his parents and at home.
Children with separation anxiety will become anxious if they only imagine a situation of separation, even when the parent is present or simply out of sight of the child. As a result, the child may limit the parent's movement, as well as his own, by following the parent everywhere in the house and even reconfirming his exact whereabouts. There is also the "secret" strategy, where the child will ask pointless questions just to locate the parent.
For a child with separation anxiety, the perception of separation and the personal experiences of separation are seen as "traumatic". He may think that saying "good night" before going to sleep is parting forever, that staying at school after parting with his parents will last forever and even fear that he will never find his parents in the parking lot at the end of the school day. These fears lead to the child seeing any separation as eternal. He underestimates his ability to cope and is accompanied by a constant feeling of fear and insecurity unless the parent is near him. All these create a reality in which a child with separation anxiety is unable to get used to the stress that accompanies every separation.
The child's insecurity and his inability to anticipate reality can stem from various reasons. One of them is an actual trauma, such as hospitalization of one of the parents or the child himself in a hospital, death of a grandparent, illness of a close person or a car accident. Another reason is an innate reason - there are children who are born with an innate vulnerability to deal with these situations, without any external factor leading to it.
Children with Separation Anxiety - an agonizing and discouraging situation
Children with Separation Anxiety are very attached to their parents, this is to calm the scary thoughts and feelings that arise in them as a result of thoughts of separation or the loss of their parents. This is not manipulation of the child, but real feelings arising in him as a result of despair. The problem is that these constant feelings will prevent the child from feeling secure. This puts the parents in a conflict - they try to comfort the child in every possible way, but the period of time that will be devoted to separation, however long it may be, will not change anything. The desire to make it easier for the child and develop his independence will be interpreted by the child as abandonment and he will only cling more and more to the parent.
In order to free the child from the anxiety of separation, the parent must understand that the child is not to blame for his situation. On one hand not to be angry with him, but on the other hand also to stop continuing calming the child again and again in the anxious situations.
The brain of a child with abandonment anxiety "tricks" him - it makes him focus on thoughts that he will never see his parents after the separation and filters out the information that such a situation is actually rare and not very likely. The solution to this situation is not to provide additional reinforcements, but to "rewrite" the separation situation and help the child (and his parents) deal with his scary thoughts and lead to a situation where these separation situations are not perceived as "dangerous" situations.
Providing reassurance, and creating a sense of security on a day-to-day basis among children suffering from anxiety is a full-time job for their parents. When an anxious child desperately asks his parents "Am I okay?" The question is not directed to the distant future or even the near future, it refers to his actual insecurity in the present. Separation Anxiety has several physical symptoms: hyperventilation, dizziness, "hysteria" and feeling out of control.
In order to deal with his or her fears during separation, the child must change his perceptions, thoughts and behaviors in several ways.
In Cognitive Behavior Treatment we help the child (and his parents) cope gradually with situations that he or she has anxious thought and feelings, while relying less and less on parental reassurance, for calming down.
Another way is to directly expose the child to his or her scary thoughts and help them cope constructively.
For out picture book that helps parents and children cope with Separation Anxiety click here