How Does Separation Anxiety Affect Children?

There are some skeptics who deny separation anxiety is a serious condition. They argue that all children want to stay with their parents and that children will eventually get over their anxiety.

While this is true to some extent, there is a point at which separation anxiety becomes unreasonably stressful. Parents need to know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of a deeper problem in their child.

A Closer Look at Separation Anxiety

A study published last year describes the most common symptoms of separation anxiety as:

  • “separation-related distress”
  • “avoidance of being alone or without an adult”
  • “avoidance of sleeping away from caregivers or from home”

Separation anxiety is more serious than a brief reluctance to leave the presence of a loved one. Children who have the condition are extremely upset when they are without their parent or caregiver. They genuinely worry they will be abandoned.

What Did the Researchers Find?

The 2011 study was designed to observe the reactions of children with and without separation anxiety disorder to a simulated separation from their mothers.

Researchers measured various factors in the children in the experiment. Some of the factors that were examined in the study are heart rate, breathing rate, perspiration and brain activity.

The children in the study who had separation anxiety had stronger reactions to the fake separation from their mothers. Their bodies and even their brains responded very differently than those of the healthy children.

The findings of the study show that children who suffer from separation anxiety are strongly affected by being away from a trusted figure. Separation anxiety is not just the child’s attempt to garner attention or to have his or her own way.

Tips for Parents

Generally, it is recommended that parents are patient and loving but firm with their child who has separation anxiety. Trying to sneak out of the house without alerting the child is considered more problematic than a warm, decisive goodbye.

Children should be taught to accept that some separation from parents is normal. It’s important for children to learn this while at a young age, because separation anxiety can lead to school anxiety or school refusal at an older age.

Parents should gradually spend more time away while the child is with a babysitter. This helps the child to adjust and to learn how to relax after the initial stress of separation.

If a child has severe separation anxiety causing undue distress, a consultation with a licensed health professional may be necessary.