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What is it?

You know what it is – it’s the thing that stops your little one from sleeping alone at night, or maybe it’s the thing that stops her from trying new things or it’s the thing causing him to have stomachaches so he can’t go to school. It’s a beast and it can be quite debilitating. The rotten thing about separation anxiety is that sometimes even the thought (anticipatory anxiety) is enough to cause a severe nervous system response – heart beating faster, stomach aches, nausea, headaches and sometimes fainting due to hyperventilation. This might mean that your little one could have been feeling awful and sick for hours just waiting to be separated from you and this can lead to crying and aggressive tantrums when the actual separation takes place. Other times, the child may be sent home as a result of their physical symptoms – the anxiety from separating is so severe that they have made themselves sick.

Some separation anxiety is normal and typical when children are young from 9months – 3 years. This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective; if you are small and helpless – your chances of survival are greatly increased if you stay with those who can protect you and provide for you. That is why it feels so paradoxical – leave someone who protects me and loves me? That’s crazy!

What can be done about it?

First – start by acknowledging it. Let them know that you are aware of how scared/worried they are. Let them know that these feelings are normal – they happen to everybody. We all feel scared or worried sometimes but there are things that we can do about it. Start with helping them to understand their body. Because there can be such a large nervous system response to anxiety – it’s important for your child to know about it. Help them to identify where in their body the anxiety is most likely to hit, that way when it happens, they won’t be so surprised and scared by it. 

Try and find out what exactly is worrying them when they are away from you and then make a plan. For example – if your child’s separation anxiety makes it hard for them to go to school – help them to identify other safe people at school they can go to for help. You can also help them to come up with other ideas for making themselves feel better – having a special toy, talking to a good friend or being the teacher’s helper can be good strategies.

If your child is extremely fearful because there are issues with friendships, bullying or school work being too hard, school will need to be informed so they can monitor social situations – recess and lunchtime more closely or else provide educational assistance or curriculum modification for the child. 

Sometimes you may need professional assistance as well, especially when the anxiety starts to interfere too greatly with the child’s social or academic functioning and they are very distressed.