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What causes separation anxiety in children?

It's hard coping with a clinging, weeping child who doesn't want you to leave them. However, be reassured that separation anxiety is a normal stage of infant and toddler development. Most young children have separation anxiety for a time, but most outgrow it around the age of three to four.

How does it show?

An anxious child may behave in any of these ways:

  • Not wanting the parent to leave them and getting upset.

  • School refusal, not wanting to go in.

  • Refusing to be away from home because of fear of separation.

  • Not wanting to be home alone without a parent in the house.

  • Recurrent and excessive distress about anticipating or being away from home.

  • Constant, excessive worry about losing a parent to an illness or a disaster.

  • The constant worry that something bad will happen separates them from their parents.

  • Refusing to go on a sleepover without a parent nearby.

  • Frequent complaints of headaches, stomach aches, or other symptoms when separation from a parent is anticipated. A separation anxiety disorder may be associated with panic attacks.

What causes it?

Separation anxiety can be triggered by a stressful incident that results in separation from a loved one. Genetics may also be a factor in developing separation anxiety.

What's the treatment?

A child needs to be reassured that parents always come back. Start with short absences, "I'm just popping out to the shops, I'll be back in half an hour." And be sure you are. Then gradually increase the time you are absent up to several hours. Make sure your child has comfort toys. More severe separation anxiety disorder is usually treated with psychotherapy, sometimes with medication.

Ways to cope with another anxiety over your child

The research found that 27 percent of parents in the UK believe they were more stressed about their child's exams than their teenagers. If this sounds familiar, here are some tips to handle it.

Don't beat yourself up

If you've yelled or handled things badly, admit it. Apologize to your child and move on.

Try visualization

Imagine your anxiety as an ice cube. Hold it in your hand and feel it melt away."Our subconscious mind is very literal, so this sends a powerful message to it that you're dumping your stress," says Neil Shah of the Stress Management Society in the UK.

Practice what you preach

The advice about sleep, breathing, and relaxation equally applies to parents.

Perspective is key

As parents, you have the benefit of context and hindsight. It's important to remember the times things have gone wrong and it wasn't the end of the world.

Consult your doctor

For mothers sometimes, the anxiety could be hormone-related. There is a direct correlation between declining estrogen during the perimenopause/menopause years and experiencing psychological and emotional symptoms of anxiety and a lack of ability to cope. While hormone replacement therapy will help, it's not an immediate fix. Try natural alternatives in the meantime, like soy isoflavones supplements.


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