Separation anxiety disorder is characterised by extreme distress when a child is away from the parent/s or caregiver/s. It is not simply a normal stage of development - normal separation anxiety is quite common in very young children. Separation anxiety disorder shares many of the same symptoms as normal separation anxiety, so it can be difficult for adults to determine if a child just needs understanding while progressing through this stage, or whether its a more serious issue.
Separation anxiety disorder results in very intense fears of separation and these fears frequently prevent the child from doig normal activities. Children who experience this disorder maybcome anxious and distress at the thought of being apart from parents, and may complain of illness to avoid going to school, going to friend's house and so on.
Common Symptoms of Separation Anxiety:
Constant fear or worry about separation
Fear that something terrible will happen to the loved one in the child's absence (e.g., car accident)
Fear that an unpredictable and awful event will result in permanent separation (e.g., getting lost, being kidnapped)
School refusal and problematic behaviours associated with avoidance of going to school
Difficulty falling asleep or going to bed (e.g., insomnia, nightmares, always needing to sleep with parent)
Somatic symptoms (e.g., stomach aches, headaches, feeling sick, vomiting).
Clinginess toward parent/s or caregiver/s. Children with this disorder may need to know which part of the house a parent is in at all times, or may shadow the adult continuously)
The psychologists at Poulton Respondek Clinical Psychology can diagnose and treat separation anxiety disorder. Assessment involves interviews, clinical observations and psychometric tests to integrate information across home, school and social contexts. A visit to the G.P. for a medical examination is required because children with separation anxiety disorder often present with physical symptoms.
Psychological interventions will assist in addressing the physical complaints, identify root causes of school avoidance, identify anxiety-related thoughts and assist your child to develop coping strategies and increase their problem-solving abilities. Therapy will provide a safe place for your child to identify and express their thoughts and feelings, and counteract unhelpful thoughts that trigger and maintain their anxiety.
Helpful Tips for School Avoidance
Anticipate anxiety and be prepared for transition points that trigger anxiety for your child
Organise for the parent/caregiver from whom your child separates more readily for school drop offs
Stay calm during drop offs and in the lead-up - if you stay calm, your child is also more likely feel calmer
Encourage participation in activities to enhance self-esteem, coping and confidence
Praise all efforts by your child, even small accomplishments
Stay empathic, but set boundaries and rules as this increases the sense of safety
Encourage routine as this helps to eliminate the fear of unexpected events
Offer choices when possible. (e.g., which gate they want to use to enter school)
Avoidance of school will only increase seperation anxiety - so assist your child if he or she has been absent from school, to return to school as soon as possible
Request that the school make allowances for late arrivals
Request that the school allow a safe place for your child to go when feeling overwhlemed