Helping You Give Your Child The Very Best Start to Kinder or School
Starting childcare, kinder, or school can be an incredibly exciting time for some children, as they flex their independence and embrace new experiences. They will meet new friends, and get to do what they love most – be curious, discover, participate, and learn about the world. But for many kids, new and unfamiliar places and experiences can also be quite daunting and distressing, especially those that requires separation from their parents for a period of time.
While some separation anxiety is normal and to be expected when your child is learning to spend time away from you, too much distress and on-going problems adjusting to separations can signal a problem with separation anxiety and may require further help from parents. Knowing what separation anxiety is, and how you can help your child move through this can be the difference between your child coping, and not coping. Here we have flagged some warning signs to look out for, and provided some helpful tips to give your child a resilient start to the year.
DID YOU KNOW: Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed psychological disorders in childhood. Of these disorders, separation anxiety disorder is the most frequently diagnosed.
So What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development and can be experienced more or less intensely for different children. Typically, separation anxiety develops around 7-9 months of age, and can continue to about 2.5 years of age, and is characterised by an increase in clinging behaviours, resistance, crying, fear and distress in response to being separated or anticipating separation from their main caregiver/s. Some children with separation anxiety may also worry about the whereabouts and safety of their parents, or become preoccupied with when their parent will return. Once children begin to feel more secure in an environment without their parents, or develop more independence in their world, this separation anxiety tends to ease.
Separation anxiety can also present at any other age and stage of childhood. It is quite common for children to experience separation anxiety when going through times of change, stress, and when children have to grapple with and adapt to new periods of separation from their caregiver. Usually this is a temporary adjustment, and children usually move through this without any lingering complications.
Of course just as children come in all shapes and sizes, their social personalities and independence come in all shapes and sizes too. Some children who may find separations more daunting or distressing are:
- Children who are very dependent on their parents to help them with their daily activities and have spent little time apart from them
- Children who have slow-to-warm temperaments, a reserved or ‘shy’ personality, or tend to display a naturally cautious approach to their world.
These types of children will often naturally feel frightened until they can assess the situation, and start to feel safe with other carers (ie, the teacher, carers, or other adults).
DID YOU KNOW: From an evolutionary perspective, separation anxiety was seen as a useful in-built mechanism that helped our ancestors survive in the wild. As children start to learn to crawl and walk and explore the world, they are still incredibly dependent on their caregivers to take care of them and keep them safe (and alive). Having strong separation anxiety propels the child to stay close to their protector, and therefore increases their likelihood of survival.
So When Should I be Concerned?
The main difference between typical separation anxiety and more problematic separation anxiety is the level of fear and distress experienced by your child, and how much their anxiety is impacting on the daily life of your child and family.
Another tell tale sign some assistance may be required is when separation anxiety is holding your child back from doing things that they really want to be able to do.
When symptoms persist for more than a period of 4 weeks, and are beyond what is expected for your child’s developmental level, their symptoms may meet criteria for what psychologists call a Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD).
What are Some Warning Signs of High Separation Anxiety?
Some separation anxiety is normal, however, the frequency, intensity and number of symptoms present are the tell tale signs your child may have be having a problem with separation anxiety. Common red flags may include the following:
- Excessive clinginess and avoidance of separation from parent
- Excessive worry and reluctance to leave the house, or participate in activities outside of the home
- Asking lots of questions about where the parent is, and when they will return
- Avoidance of a place where they know they will be separated, eg, school refusal
- Anger outbursts, tantrums, and emotional meltdowns in anticipation of separation
- Significant physiological distress with may include sore stomach, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, dizziness, headache, trembling
- Co-sleeping in parents bed, or frequent night time waking and need for parent to help settle
- Fear of being lost or left behind
- Fear of being alone in parts of the house, e.g., wont go to the toilet by themselves, or tends to ‘shadow’ the parent around the house
- Worries about the safety of a parent, family members, or themselves
School-aged children may also experience:
- Extreme feelings of homesick and may avoid sleepovers, or school camps
Who can suffer from Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)?
Research has suggested that there is no single factor that contributes to a child developing separation anxiety disorder (SAD), but most likely is the resulting interplay of a number of factors, including:
- Biological and genetic factors that influence the formation of the child’s personality may lead to a more reserved and anxious temperament
- Disruptions in the formation of a secure and safe attachment between the parent and child. This includes how the parent and child deal with and resolve conflict, repair the relationship after conflict, and the level of consistent safety and security created within the relationship.
- Early childhood experiences of traumatic separation
- Parent mental health and well-being; in particular parental anxiety can increase the likelihood of a child developing anxiety
- Family history of anxiety
- Environmental factors such as stressful home or care settings, maternal overprotection, modelling of anxious thinking styles and avoidant coping behaviours in stressful situations
How Can I Help My Child?
Your child’s fear of being separated from you is a very real fear for them. At the very core of this anxiety, children truly believe that if something were to happen to you, they would not survive in the world. They also often underestimate their ability to cope in a situation without your presence. Or perhaps they lack some important skills to be able to do so.
The good new is, separation anxiety is very effectively treated with psychological intervention. Psychology treatment for children aged 2-12 will often include education, information and support for parents, as well as meeting with you and your child to help teach your child skills to increase their confidence, tools to help manage separations, and activities to help reduce their anxiety. This is done in a child-friendly, fun, and supportive way.
If you are concerned about your child’s level of separation anxiety, speaking with a psychologist experienced in assessing and treating separation anxiety disorder can help you to determine whether your child is experiencing a separation anxiety problem, and if so, can help build important tools to guide you and your child through their anxiety.
Related Blogs: The Do’s and Don’ts to Help Ease Separation Anxiety
Written by Shannyn Wilson, psychologist at SW Psychology.
Shannyn recently Shannyn recently made her first publication as chapter author in the latest of Dr Rossow’s books Neuropsychotherapy: Theoretical Underpinnings & Clinical Applications:
- S (2014). Neuropsychotherapy principles in the treatment of separation anxiety disorder in children. In Rossow. P. J. Neuropsychotherapy: Theoretical Underpinnings & Clinical Applications. (pp. 230 – 270). Brisbane: Mediros Pty Ltd.