In the past few months, I have heard clients and family members express the difficulty they are having with leaving their homes, families, and even pets for the day. It seems that with COVID-19 and shelter in place, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate. It seems children are struggling too with separation from parents. Separation anxiety is a common issue in kids of all ages and can vary greatly in the level of impact it has on a person’s life. It is important for parents to be aware of signs that their child may be experiencing separation anxiety so that they can take a proactive approach to help their children face and overcome fears, rather than unknowingly helping their child’s anxiety thrive and become more problematic in the long run.
Since being under “stay-at-home” orders, working and schooling from home, and having sports and other extra-curricular activities suspended, many kids have become accustomed to having parents around and let’s face it, parents have become accustomed to being around as well. It’s difficult to leave children and even pets! However, as life begins to return to “normal,” parents are noticing that their children are having a harder time getting back into the swing of things. For some, separation anxiety may be fueling the challenges that parents are encountering.
Separation anxiety happens when a child is separated from caregivers, or when they are fearing being separated. Some symptoms that your child may be experiencing are:
- clinging to parents
- extreme and severe crying
- refusal to do things that require separation
- physical illness, such as headaches or vomiting
- violent, emotional temper tantrums
- refusal to go to school
- poor school performance
- failure to interact in a healthy manner with other children
- refusing to sleep alone
Separation anxiety is a normal reaction in children, and for many, it demonstrates a secure attachment to their caregiver… in other words, it is great that your child is feeling this way, it means they see you as someone they can go to for safety and protection! However, if it is interfering with your child’s life, it may be time to respond. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and specifically Exposure Based Treatment are the most effective treatments for separation anxiety. The idea behind treatment, is gradually and over time, your child can learn to face fears and do things that are uncomfortable. In the process, your child is going to learn that they can tolerate discomfort and that generally the feared outcome is not likely to occur.
Successful treatment also incorporates parent coaching-teaching parents how to respond to their children’s fears and how to encourage their children to do what is uncomfortable. It can be difficult for parents to know how to respond; it does not feel good to “make your child upset.” Therefore, sometimes instead of dealing with the stress, parents make the common mistake of “giving in” to the anxiety- allowing kids to withdraw from activities, or make significant accommodations. Some of these accommodations include only having friends at your house, being the drop-off AND pick-up parent, or waiting in the bleachers while they go to practice. These solutions may work in the short-term, but the ever-learning brain is making long lasting associations, and ‘nurturing accommodations’ are actually reinforcing the perceived danger of being away from their parent. In other words, making these accommodations is “feeding the anxiety monster.”
Here are a few helpful points for parents to keep in mind if they suspect their child is experiencing separation anxiety:
- Normalize and validate the anxiety or fear – for yourself, and your child if they are old enough to understand.
- Introduce separation gradually– maybe instead of starting with going back to school, all day, to a new class, new teacher, and new rules, you start with a trip to grandma’s, or a visit with a friend.
- Reinforce the absence of the feared consequence when/ if you are apart. Anxiety is sending the message that, “something bad is going to happen if you are apart”, so a part of the process of getting through separation anxiety is showing your child that this fear is not as likely to occur as they think.
Remember: there are long-term consequences to avoiding short-term discomfort!
Separation anxiety does not need to be to the point where it is significantly impacting your or your child’s life. Clinicians at The OCD & Anxiety Center work with kids and parents at all levels of severity, utilizing effective, evidenced based, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention, to overcome the worry and fear associated with separation anxiety. Feel free to reach out to us at 630-522-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org!
Lauren Eldridge, LCSW is a licensed therapist at The OCD & Anxiety Center in Oak Brook, IL. She specializes in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Exposure and Response Prevention Therapy for anxiety, OCD, and anxiety-related disorders. She is comfortable working with children and adults and is able to provide treatment both in the office and outside of the office, wherever anxiety happens.
Learn more about separation anxiety and the methods to treat it: https://theocdandanxietycenter.com/separation-anxiety/
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