Know When Clingy Kids Have Separation Anxiety Disorder
by Lisa DiFalco
Some children are clingy and refuse to part from their parents. A certain level of clinginess may be normal in very young children. As they get older, clinginess falls away, and they become more independent. Other children exhibit clingy behavior to such a degree and at ages that may make therapy advisable. If this is the case and anxieties are causing a child to lose interest in school, socializing with friends, and common childhood activities, as they do not want to separate from their parent or caregiver, there may be an issue.
Separation anxiety disorder is a condition that can impact school-aged children and their families. Learn more about separation anxiety disorder and treatment options.
What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Children often go through a period where they become more “clingy.” This behavior is normal for children of 8 to 14 months of age. It becomes more of a concern and may be diagnosed as separation anxiety disorder when:
- The child exhibiting the behavior is over six years old.
- The behavior becomes excessive and continues longer than four weeks.
While some level of separation anxiety is considered to be normal, excessive levels in children older than two may need to be addressed by a medical professional.
What Are Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Parents or a caregiver of a child with separation anxiety disorder may see physical symptoms in said child, including stomachaches and headaches, occurring when the child thinks about being separated from them. The level of distress experienced by a child may make it difficult for them to play with other children or enjoy going to school. Common symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:
- Repeated pleading and temper tantrums
- Complaints of stomachaches and headaches when it is a school day
- Bed wetting
- Nightmares about separation
- Fear of being alone
- Difficulty sleeping without a parent or caregiver close or a refusal to sleep outside the home
- Resistance to going to school
- A belief from the child something bad will happen to them or to a parent or caregiver if they separate from the parent or caregiver
Children with the condition find it difficult to separate from caregivers for many routine and common activities. The condition can lead to friction in the household and conflicting approaches to dealing with the issue may exacerbate the situation.
What Are the Reasons for Separation Anxiety Disorder?
There are a variety of causes for this condition. It is believed separation anxiety disorder may result from traumatic or stressful events. A stay in the hospital or death of a loved one may trigger the condition. Also, children of overprotective parents may be more likely to develop separation anxiety. Parental separation anxiety may feed into separation anxiety in a child. Families with a history of mental disorders may have children who are more likely to be diagnosed with separation anxiety. As Steven L. Pastyrnak, Ph.D., division chief of pediatric psychology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, said:
“Although kids may develop separation anxiety following a traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one or a move to a new house or school, many kids develop symptoms independent of a clear environmental cause. In this regard, there are likely to be a number of genetic and/or physical causes for separation anxiety disorder.”
What Are Treatments for Separation Anxiety Disorder?
“Most kids with separation anxiety do learn to handle those situations just fine over time and do not experience any long-term or disabling anxiety. A little bit of understanding and a lot of parental patience will go a long way.”
There are many ways parents and caregivers can help children and adolescents with separation anxiety disorder. Suggestions to help a child include:
- Giving reassurance: A child needs to realize their fears are unfounded. Pastyrnak said, “It’s important for parents to help their kids continue to experience safe periods of separation anxiety rather than always adjusting their lifestyle to avoid it.”
- Setting an example: Avoid influencing a child’s anxieties with parental needs. Vivian K. Friedman, Ph.D., a child-adolescent professor at the University of Alabama School of Medicine, said, “Behind most children with a separation anxiety disorder is a parent who cannot allow the child to separate. Don’t use your children to meet your own need for companionship, and don’t project your own fears onto your children.”
- Helping them handle their anxiety: Simple affirmations and breathing exercises can help children learn to cope with periods of stress and anxiety.
Implementing this advice may help reduce the worst symptoms of the condition, give children the skills necessary to become more independent, and lessen the fear commonly associated with separation anxiety disorder.
Help for Parents and the Child with Separation Anxiety Disorder
It can be difficult for both a child with separation anxiety disorder and for parents and other family members to patiently work toward a solution that improves the symptoms of the condition. Healthcare professionals, behavioral analysts, educators, and community members can gather resources to serve families that have a child diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. It is possible to provide children and parents the guidance needed to live life more fully and reduce unwarranted fears, anxieties, and nightmares often associated with this condition.