WHAT IS SEPARATION ANXIETY?
All children suffer from fears at one time or another, this is normal. But when a fear creates feelings of overwhelming danger that are disproportionate to the actual situation, the child is most likely suffering from an anxiety disorder.
Separation anxiety disorder is an excessive fear related to separation from home or a parent or other attachment figure. This disorder causes the child to avoid the situation or activity that triggers anxiety. If the situation can’t be avoided, the child becomes distressed.
Emotional symptoms of a child with separation anxiety may include:
· an unrealistic fear that something terrible will happen to their parent
· fear that the separation will be permanent
· refusal to go to bed without their parent
· a reluctance to go to school or camp
· the need to have the parent with them to simply go to another room
· a sense of panic
Physiological symptoms may include:
· a racing heart
· difficulty breathing
· feeling weak
· difficulty concentrating
When the separation anxiety interferes with the child’s sleep, concentration, ability to have fun or function normally, intervention from a mental health professional is needed.
Predisposition - Some children are prone to being more anxious than others and are less capable of handling stress.
Genes - If the child comes from a long line of anxious people, chances are that the child will develop an anxiety disorder.
Environment - Situations that may be a factor in developing separation anxiety in a child include:
· parents going through a divorce
· losing a family member or friend
· living in a volatile home
· living with an overprotective parent – the parent’s anxieties can be passed on
· having an insecure emotional connection to a parent
· living with a disabled or seriously ill family member
· attending a new school
Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
CBT helps children recognise their thought patterns and identify where and when those patterns help and where they hurt. In other words, how we think and act affects how we feel. By incorporating Graded Exposure into CBT, the child slowly and systematically faces his fears and learns to better manage the symptoms of his anxiety. With practice the child gains mastery over fear and experiences reduced symptoms.
Dr. Madeleine Vieira's Anxiety Disorder Series, I'M AFRAID, introduces CBT techniques to help children overcome their anxiety disorders.
Charlie Cub Is Afraid to Leave His Mother! focuses on Separation Anxiety. In this book, Charlie Cub wants to go to sleepovers, but he’s afraid to leave his mother. To overcome his fear, he uses a stepladder process to gradually expose himself to being away from his mother. He starts with small steps and gradually builds up to more fearful situations.
In treatment, mental health professionals help children to control their separation anxiety and uncomfortable feelings using specific techniques such as:
· Understanding that the imagined outcome associated with the separationisn’t realistic.
· Using self-talk to ‘fight’ the fear. The child might tell himself what he thinks will happen won’t actually happen.
· Using relaxation techniques. The child is taught to use controlled breathing exercises to help lessen anxious feelings.
· Using role-playing techniques, such as practicing worst-case outcomes. The mental health professional will help the child realise that the outcomes are not possible or highly unlikely.
· Teaching the child he can manage his uncomfortable feelings successfully without avoidance. This takes time, repetition, and practice!
When a child’s phobia doesn’t fully respond to CBT, anti-anxiety medication prescribed by a child & adolescent psychiatrist may be beneficial.