Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety in children is one of the pathological types of anxiety disorders affecting young children, usually over the age of 6 years, but rarely it also appears in teens. The typical symptom specific to separation anxiety disorder is the excessive fear and nervousness manifested by a child when separated from his family or taken away from home.
Separation anxiety disorder affects 5% of all children worldwide aged between 7 and 11 years old and almost 1.3% of all teens. Separation anxiety disorder in children is different from the normal separation anxiety which is experienced by infants and toddlers aged between 8 to 14 months and also different from the so-called “stranger anxiety” affecting babies and toddlers between 4 months to 2 years.
The pathological fear of separation is thought to have genetic causes although the environment, stressful and traumatic events such as the loss of someone loved or the death of a pet also favor the occurrence of separation anxiety disorder.
Children with overprotective parents are more prone to developing this psychological problem as their fear is feed by the parental anxious behavior and thinking patterns. In these cases, the intense symptoms are recurrent and they often continue during elementary school years, interfering with the child’s normal activities and development. But which are these symptoms?
The Manifestations of Separation Anxiety in Children
- the unrealistic worry that something terrible is going to happen to the child or parent if one of them leaves
- exaggerated and continuous concern about being kidnapped or getting lost
- the refusal of going to sleep alone due to repeated nightmares about losing someone loved
- the refusal of going to school or stay alone in the house, fed by the intense fear of being left alone in a threatening place
- bed wetting and recurrent headaches, stomachaches and other similar physical complaints on school days
All these symptoms can be normal when they only appear from time to time, as isolated manifestations after tiring days or unpleasant experiences, but when they repeat on a regular basis and last for more than 6 months, it is advised to seek professional help. When left untreated, separation anxiety disorder in children can lead to social phobia in early adulthood so the sooner a treatment is applied, the greater the chances of recovery are.
Separation Anxiety Disorder Treatment Options
Separation anxiety in children can be treated through either psychotherapy or medication-based plans, but the second alternative is generally recommended only in severe cases where the typical symptoms of anxiety are associated with depressive thoughts. Mild cases of separation anxiety disorder don’t usually require a medical treatment, as they can be managed through a healthy education regarding the normal relationship between parents and children.
Psychotherapy is applied when the symptoms don’t improve after family or CBT counseling alone. Still, for better and faster results a combination of approaches is usually recommended, this meaning that besides psychotherapy the child could also benefit from professional cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions.
The focus of psychotherapy and counseling in separation anxiety in children is to help the child tolerate separation in a healthier way and perceive the parents’ departure as a normal fact and not as a distressing situation. Behavioral therapy encourages the kid to stay alone in his room and to leave the house without his parents by offering both psychological support – manifested as verbal encouragements coming from parents or caregivers – and rewards.
Cognitive-behavioral therapies applied as remedies for separation anxiety disorder help children and parents focus on positive thoughts and feelings instead of negative and threatening sensations and increase their ability of solving anxiety problems by themselves. Coloring, listening to music, playing games and watching TV are presented as alternatives to unhealthy behavioral patterns associated with separation anxiety, these activities helping kids to deal with their negative thoughts in a more relaxed way.
If the symptoms of separation anxiety in children don’t go away and psychotherapy is unsuccessful, medications are the next viable treatment option.