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Don't Worry, It's Normal!

Calming Fears about Separation Anxiety in Children

By: KC Smith

It is not unusual to be concerned when we notice separation anxiety in children. It usually manifests in babies around eight or nine months and continues until about three years of age. Most children will cry when a parent leaves them, especially in an unfamiliar environment. Many parents become very distressed when this happens and worry that they are causing psychological damage to their youngster or that perhaps they have spoiled the child. Typically, there is no need for alarm.

Separation anxiety develops in children as a natural mechanism to keep the species safe. Because a toddler so strongly feels the urge to remain close to his primary caregiver, he is less likely to stray too far and find himself in a dangerous or even life-threatening situation. This is also somewhat related to the "Stranger Anxiety" that appears in babies between about seven and eleven months of age. In short, the child has come to equate the primary caregiver, usually a parent, with a sense of security; and that sense is threatened when the caregiver is removed from the situation. The home has also been linked to security, and children are therefore more cautious in a strange environment, even if the parent is present.

In addition to crying when the parent leaves the child with a babysitter or at daycare, there are other signs of separation anxiety in children. It is not unlikely for the child to cry again upon the parent's return, as he has been reminded of the distress he felt when the parent originally left. Some children, also become quiet or are particularly shy in the new environment. When the primary caregiver must leave a baby for an extended period, say a few weeks to care for sick relative, the baby will generally go into a depression. This decreases the baby's appetite and causes him to move and explore less, leading to slower development. By the time the child is a toddler, the parent's absence is less likely to cause depression and more likely to cause anxiety.

Other signs of separation anxiety in children include clinginess and concern that the caregiver will be harmed in some way if the child is not nearby. Some children also suffer from physical reactions to the anxiety, such as stomachaches, headaches, dizziness and nausea. These symptoms usually subside if the child is allowed to stay home; however, the anxiety is over the parent leaving, not over being in the new environment, so they will often subside even if the child can not stay home. Anxiety-related behaviors or symptoms may increase when the child is tired or sick, or if there have been major changes in his home life or daily routine. They usually last for less than two weeks.

It is not impossible for a toddler or child to develop too much separation anxiety, but it is very rare. Some of the warning signs that a child has developed Separation Anxiety Disorder include the child being unable to sleep alone, constantly worrying that some harm will come to his parents, ongoing nightmares of the parents being harmed, refusing to go to school or anxiety-induced physical complaints that last for more than two weeks. Children generally outgrow Separation anxiety around three years of age, but certain aspects may reappear in times of great stress. Older children exhibiting these signs constantly over a period of weeks should see a healthcare professional. Again, such situations are quite rare, and the vast majority of Separation anxiety in children is not only to be expected, it is a valuable stage in human development.

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