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separation anxiety

Separation anxiety in childhood is the anxiety that goes along with the fear of being separated from parents or parent figures.

What is the information for this topic? 
Separation anxiety is a common psychological problem in children. It appears at about 8 months of age and may continue until about the age of 2. These children fear that harm will come to them or that they will be lost when their parents or caregivers are away. They may also fear that some harm might occur to their parents. Separation anxiety may not occur until there is some change in the child's routine or a stressful event occurs. This can include starting preschool, a parent starting to work outside the home, changing schools, or a serious illness.

From a psychological point of view, the anxiety that a child feels when he or she is separated from a parent or caregiver means that the child has a secure attachment to the parent. The child is beginning to understand that people are separate beings and that a parent can be somewhere else. The child is anxious because he or she wants the parent to remain close.

Young children do not understand the concept of time. They do not understand that when a caregiver is not at their side they do not fail to exist or will never return. Separation anxiety should be considered serious when the child remains upset in a new setting or with a new caretaker for more than a few weeks. The anxiety may be severe enough to interrupt normal playing, eating, and sleep habits. When this occurs, counselling may be necessary.

Some suggestions for coping with separation anxiety include:
  • A child should have the chance to get familiar with a new environment before he or she is left there.
  • A parent should be understanding and accept the child's feelings without giving in to them.
  • The child should be reassured that the parent or caregiver will come back at a specific time. The parent should then be sure to arrive on time.
  • The child should be told ahead of time about the separation. This helps him or her prepare for the separation.
  • The parent shouldn't sneak away from the child. This will only make matters worse. The child will be on guard in the future.
  • The parent should try some short-term separations, such as going into another room and reappearing. This can help the child learn that the absence is only temporary.
  • The parents should reinforce the positive aspects of the event. This can include reassuring the child that he or she will have a good day at daycare or school.
  • The parent should make the child feel secure by giving him or her lots of love and attention.
  • The parents should not reveal their own feelings of anxiety about the separation. This alerts the child that something may be wrong.
Most children experience some degree of anxiety when separated from a loved one. In general, there should be few problems if:
  • the child is in a generally good mood
  • is eating properly
  • sleeping properly
  • enjoying himself or herself
  • there is no significant change in behaviour
Author: Eric Berlin, MD
Reviewer: eknowhow Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr John Hearne
Last Updated: 12/1/2005
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

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