Separation Anxiety in Children

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Many parents are all too familiar with the cries of their child that seem to be impossible to calm and the child that clings to their leg when they are about to leave. The terrible twos are not the only dreaded stage of child development; this is what is commonly known as separation anxiety. "Separation anxiety is a developmental stage during which the child experiences anxiety when separated from the primary care giver…" (McPherson, 2004). Separation anxiety varies widely from child to child and most commonly occurs between the ages of eight months to two and a half. There are several different causes of separation anxiety, ways to manage separation anxiety to make it easier for both the child and the parent, and symptoms and warning signs to look out for that a child may exhibit. Certain warning signs that may be prevalent may sometimes indicate a deeper issue that may be caused from something other than separation anxiety.

"Separation anxiety usually peaks between ten and eighteen months and fades by the age of two years. This anxiety may become greater at any age or may return in an older child…when other changes occur…" (Please Don't Go). Separation anxiety is normal and is part of healthy psychological development. Separation anxiety is generally caused when the child's caregiver, most frequently the mother, is out of sight from her child. Other factors that may contribute to separation anxiety are "tiredness, minor or major illness, changes in the household routine, family changes such as birth of a sibling, divorce, death or illness, [and/or] change in caregiver or routine at day care center" (Watkins, Brynes, and Peller, 2001). Children that cry when the parent is leaving tend to stop within two to four minutes after the parent is gone and return back to their regular routines. There are many ways to handle the separation anxiety a child may be feeling. "It is important to handle separation anxiety properly so that your child will develop the coping skills needed to handle being separated from you when he or she is older" (Separation Anxiety). First, a parent must make saying goodbye to their child quick and direct. A parent must let their child know that they are leaving, where and why they are going, and reassure the child that they will return. Sneaking away when a child is not looking may produce even more anxiety in the child. "Try not to leave when he or she is likely to be tired, hungry, or restless" (Harkness, 2005). A child should never be bribed, teased, or scolded to hide his or her anxiety; instead parents should encourage brave behaviors in their children as well as asking them how their favorite character may handle the same situation. Once the goodbye hugs and kisses have taken place, the parent must not hesitate to leave. A parent must "let children know that they will be okay; help get them settled; and then leave…." (Separation Triggers, 2000). Sticking around or repeatedly coming back only allows the child to feel as though he or she is in control of the situation and will continue to use their anxiety to control the parent (Gewirtz and Pelaez-Nogueras, 1994). Some additional ways to help the child cope with their anxiety are to stay with the child and support them while they familiarize themselves with a new place or person. Parents can also experiment at home by staying out of their child's sight for five minutes and slowly increasing the time spent out of sight from the child by five minutes each time. In addition, parents can give their child something to comfort them while they are away such as the child's favorite toy, stuffed animal, blanket, picture, etc. "Tell her Mommy or Daddy will be back after naptime or at dinnertime, even if she can't tell time. Be sure to keep your word" (Please Don't Go). A parent should always acknowledge how their child is feeling and tell the child that they understand how the child is feeling while explaining why they are...
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