Separation Anxiety in Toddlers
Separation anxiety is a condition in which an individual experiences excessive fear or worry about being separated from a particular person or people whom they are emotionally attached to.
In children, it is considered a normal stage of development, particularly in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Infants between 8 to 14 months old commonly experience a period of separation anxiety. They usually outgrow it around 2 or 3 years of age. This phase is temporary does not require any medical attention.
Young children go through separation anxiety when their mother or caregiver becomes out of sight. They tend to be clingy to their mothers and afraid of unfamiliar people and places. This is a natural behavior and a sign of a meaningful attachment formed between children and parents.
Although separation anxiety in toddlers is a normal part of childhood development, some children have a more serious condition known as a separation anxiety disorder. This may arise as early as preschool age.
What is a Separation Anxiety Disorder, and What Causes It?
If your child’s anxiety seems extreme and prolonged, it may be considered as a separation anxiety disorder. It is a condition wherein your child becomes excessively fearful and nervous when they are separated from a loved one, or away from home. This intense anxiety exceeds the normal developmental stage. It usually occurs in children older than 6 years old.
These feelings of anxiety are usually triggered by specific life stresses, like being in a new situation or place, new caregiver, new sibling, or tension at home. If you notice this level of anxiety appears out of the blue in your child, there might be another problem, like bullying or abuse.
Significant stressful and traumatic events such as sickness, death of a loved one or pet, or a change in environment can cause separation anxiety disorder. The anxiety a parent has when separated from his child can also affect the child to experience the same.
Your child may be more vulnerable to the disorder if your family members have a history of anxiety and other mental disorders.
What Are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Toddlers?
Recurrent and excessive distress about being away to a parent or a close caregiver is the most common sign of separation anxiety disorder. When your child has this condition, they usually have unrealistic worry and fear that something terrible will happen to them when their parent or caregiver leaves.
Clinging and refusal to do things that require separation, extreme crying, and violent and emotional temper tantrums are typical behaviors of children with this anxiety disorder.
Your child may not want to be home alone or be reluctant to sleep away from home without their parent or caregiver beside them. They may have repeated nightmares about being separated. They worry about being lost or kidnapped and losing a loved one to an illness or disaster.
These behaviors and episodes of sudden feelings happen repeatedly and last longer than four weeks. This can lead to poor performance in school and unhealthy interaction with other children.
Your child may also frequently complain of physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach aches. Unfortunately, a separation anxiety disorder can interfere with the daily activities of your child. It can cause them great distress, panic attacks, or other health problems.
How to Help Your Child Get Through Separation Anxiety
With preparation and ample time, children and parents can survive separation anxiety.
1. Slowly Introduce Other People
If possible, try not to start childcare with an unfamiliar person when your child is between the ages of 8 months and 1 year. If you plan to leave your child with a relative or a babysitter, introduce the person slowly and have your child spend time with the new person while you are around. You can gradually practice leaving your child with the caregiver for short periods so your child will get used to it.
2. Keep Goodbyes Short and Sweet
Make goodbye easier by keeping it short. Give your full attention to your child, but do not delay the transition. You have to be calm and consistent. Reassure them that you will come back.
3. Make Sure to Come Back
Stick to your promise of return. This is important in developing trust and confidence of your child in their ability to be independent through the time that you are apart. Eventually, your child will be able to adapt and remember that you will always return after you leave. This will help him develop independence and coping abilities.
4. Medication and Therapy Options
If you are concerned that your child’s separation anxiety persists, it is best to talk to your pediatrician. Medication and therapy are treatment methods that can help your child deal with separation anxiety.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most effective type of treatment for this disorder. It works to reshape your child’s thinking so that their behavior becomes more appropriate. They will be taught coping techniques for anxiety, which include deep breathing and relaxation.
Parent-child interaction therapy is another treatment option. It incorporates parents and family members in the treatment process. It will educate parents about the disorder and help them learn new ways to interact with their children. They will also learn strategies that will help them better support the child during periods of anxiety.
Antidepressants or other anti-anxiety medications may be prescribed for older children, especially adolescents who struggle with symptoms of separation anxiety disorder. Giving these types of medicine should be a decision carefully considered by both parents and the doctor.
Medications can have significant side effects on children. It is essential to monitor the child and seek medication evaluation from a psychiatrist.
Whichever treatment you choose for your child, it is important to stick with it to help prevent the disorder from worsening. Early diagnosis and treatment can help reduce symptoms and lessen the risk of anxiety disorders that may continue into teenage years and adulthood.