On the first day (or even the first week) of school, it is expected that your child may seem a bit nervous or even tearful when walking through their new classroom door. Parents
and teachers easily chalk this up to the start of a new school year jitters and wait for the short adjustment period to pass. However, for some children, this anxiety does not seem to fade and may manifest in multiple areas of the child’s life, such as play dates, sleepovers, or even being with caretakers other than their parents.
What is separation anxiety disorder?
Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is marked by a significant fear of being away from one’s parents, primary caregiver, or other significant attachment figure. Although separation anxiety is most frequently seen in younger children who fear being away from their parents, the disorder can be present in individuals of any age, including children, teenagers, and even adults.
Those with SAD can fear being away from any significant person in their life, including their parent, child, or romantic partner. This anxiety can manifest as a fear that something bad will happen to one’s parents when they are separated (e.g., accident, illness, or death). It can also be a fear that something scary will happen to the child when they are not with their parent (e.g., being kidnapped or harmed).
Those with SAD may begin to experience distress when they know a separation is approaching — such as on a Sunday night before the school week, or towards the end of the summer when school is about to resume. Children with this disorder may also fear sleeping alone and may have recurring nightmares with a theme of separation and harm. Children who fear separation may also have frequent complaints of physical problems, like stomachaches and headaches. These physical problems can worsen when there is an impending separation.
Is there anything parents can do?
When children begin to display this type of anxiety, parents and teachers understandably become upset and want to ease the child’s fear. Wanting to soothe child’s distress, parents may occasionally allow their child to stay home from school or allow their child to sleep in the parent’s bed. Sometimes parents will allow their child to call or text during the day for reassurance that their parents are okay. While these strategies will put the child’s mind at ease temporarily, anxiety is ultimately strengthened by these short-term solutions.
Long-term solutions to separation anxiety disorder are available. Children, teens, and adults with this disorder can benefit from treatment. Treatment will be described in Dr. Piering’s next post!