Has Your Child’s Fear Of Being Separated From You Taken Over Your and Their Life?
Does your child have difficulty leaving your side, possibly even throwing a tantrum when you leave? Do they cry, plead, and protest because they worry that something will happen to you or them if you are not together?
Maybe they are missing out on desired life events (camp, school, friend’s birthday party) or even having difficulty sleeping in their own bed. Or perhaps goodbyes are becoming longer and more drawn out, leading to irritability and anxiety for both of you.
In an effort to reduce their anxiety, your child may ask many questions about where you’re going or send frequent text messages and make numerous phone calls while you’re away. They might also follow their caregiver around and call out at random times to make sure their caregiver can respond.
Good Intentions Can Inadvertently Intensify Anxiety
Many times, you may engage in safety behaviors that are only reinforcing your child’s fear that they “cannot handle this and can’t be alone.” For example, allowing your child to sleep in your bed or immediately picking them up if they are having a difficult time at a friend’s house reinforces and accommodates anxiety, which continues the cycle. Though your intention is to be supportive of your child, these behavioral adaptations accidentally maintain and even heighten anxiety in the long run.
Fortunately, with help from a therapist, you can learn how to support your child—not their anxiety about separation—and change the way they respond to the situation. Making behavioral changes can bring about a major change in your child’s relationship with anxiety, as well as their relationship with you.
Anxiety About Separating Can Be Developmentally Appropriate, But Separation Anxiety Is Different
As the child-parent connection is so vital during the first 18 months of a child’s life, anxiety about separating from their parents is normal. However, separation anxiety disorder is differentiated when the anxiety and fear are not developmentally appropriate. For example, it may be appropriate for a toddler to be fearful if a parent were to leave on business for a week, but it’s not appropriate for a 16-year-old.
While separation anxiety disorder can occur at any age, it is most typically diagnosed in children and adolescents. The National Institute of Health reports that between 1-4% of children can experience separation anxiety.* Many times this is under-reported as it can be normalized, so the actual numbers might be a lot higher.
Biological And Behavioral Factors: Both At Play
Separation Anxiety Disorder is a mental health condition in which an individual experiences strong fear about separating from someone to whom they are attached, usually a parent or other caregiver. This fear is accompanied by persistent worry that something bad will happen to either the caregiver or themself.
Like all other anxiety disorders, separation anxiety has biological and behavioral components. If a family member has another anxiety disorder, your child might be at an increased risk for developing this type of anxiety. Treatment and therapy for separation anxiety generally focus on the environmental and behavioral contributing factors.
Treatment Can Help Increase Independence and Decrease Separation Anxiety
Whether it is your anxiety, your child’s anxiety, or a combination of both, a therapist can help you learn about the separation anxiety cycle and what behaviors can contribute to and even reinforce anxiety versus what behaviors reduce it. Your specialist will also assist you with normalizing your child’s anxiety about separation and even occasionally validating it while, at the same time, teach you what to do and how to respond when anxiety is high.
What To Expect From Therapy Sessions
Our treatment sessions are designed to change your and your child’s relationship with anxiety. They build upon each other and are skills-based, which will give you new ways to respond each time.
As a parent, you are your child’s number one advocate and know more about them than anyone else. Because of this, you are also the main person that can teach them, indirectly and directly, about how to fight their anxiety. Though this might seem difficult in the beginning, your therapist will walk you through this process one step at a time, making sure that you know how to respond to your own anxiety, as well as your child’s.
Separation Anxiety Disorder Treatment Methods
At The OCD & Anxiety Center, our aim is to provide the most evidence-based treatments possible. For individuals with separation anxiety, parent training and Exposure and Response Prevention therapy (ERP) are our treatments of choice.
Through ERP, individuals with separation anxiety learn to face their fears gradually to increase their ability to tolerate uncertainty about their caregiver’s location. This might simply start with your child playing in their room while you are in a different room and, with time, progress to them going to a friend’s house or leaving them at home with a babysitter. With time and repetition, this process will help decrease anxiety and encourage more independence, reinforcing that your child can do things on their own, even if it feels difficult at first.
For parent training, we will explore how your behaviors are contributing to and/or maintaining your child’s anxiety, usually by accident. In session, a specialist will show you how to respond to your child, supporting them and not their separation anxiety. They will also teach you what to say when anxiety is high—either by role-playing or as the anxiety is actually happening—and what to do to help your child separate.
Perhaps You Are Considering Separation Anxiety Treatment But Still Have Some Concerns…
A trauma in my child’s life has made their anxiety about separation worse. Can treatment still help?
Anxiety often exaggerates the likelihood of bad events happening, especially if they have happened once before. Our brain wants to protect us and sounds an alarm, going into problem-solving mode. This is great when we are actually in danger, but that same alarm response goes off in situations with separation anxiety when your child is not in actual danger.
ERP can help to reduce this fear response and allow your child to see that what they fear is not as likely to happen as their anxiety is telling them. Your therapist will be extremely sensitive to the trauma that has occurred and validate your child’s anxiety response in that moment, but they will also help you understand how vital it is to address this going forward.
What role will I play as a parent, and what role will my child play?
Parents are a large part of the treatment process, and we typically work with both parents and children. But if your child is unwilling to participate, we can make a lot of progress in reducing their anxiety by just working with you and changing your behavior.
When, and if, your child wants to participate, their therapist will assist them with facing fears related to their separation anxiety. This is something that will be slow and gradual, and will most likely also include you.
Won’t my child just outgrow this?
Many individuals believe that, with time, their anxiety will just disappear or become more manageable. However, research shows that, without treatment, anxiety often gets worse and impacts more and more areas of an individual’s life.
The same is true for separation anxiety, which is anxiety that is no longer developmentally appropriate. While many children outgrow this fear as they transition out of the toddler phase, if anxiety continues to impact your child, it’s vital to get help. And we would love for you to see what’s possible with the right support.
Your and Your Child’s Relationship Does Not Need To Be Anxiety-Driven
If anxiety is taking over your relationship with your child, ERP for separation anxiety can increase their autonomy and independence and remove the tension and power struggles currently present. The OCD & Anxiety Center can offer you the right tools to break the cycle and loosen’s anxiety’s grip on your child and your family. To address further concerns or schedule an appointment, please call us at (630) 522-3124 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.