Parents know the early years of a child’s life are when they develop bonds and learn security and trust, and it is very common for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers to get upset or anxious when they are away from their parents and the environment they feel most secure in.
Separation anxiety is a completely normal stage of emotional development in young children when they begin to understand the concept that people exist even when they’re not physically present.
But what is less common, and less discussed, is the fact that separation anxiety can appear in older children and even teens, as they navigate unknown situations or major life changes as they get older.
Children who are more introverted or have an underlying anxiety disorder are most likely to experience symptoms of separation anxiety.
But unlike the obvious signs of distress or fear that parents see in infants and toddlers, it can be hard to predict whether an older child is going through separation anxiety.
The symptoms can vary greatly depending on the child or can be blamed on other social or behavioral issues.
U.S. News and World Report provided some warning signs of separation anxiety in older children:
• An unrealistic and lasting worry that something terrible will happen to the parent or caregiver (often fears of death) if the child leaves
•An unrealistic and lasting worry that something terrible will happen to the child
• School refusal
• Difficulty sleeping alone (wants a parent or caregiver in the bed or in the bedroom); has difficulty or refuses to sleep away from home
• Nightmares about being separated from a parent or caregiver
• Difficulty making and maintaining friendships due to persistent worry
• Lack of independence
• Afraid to be alone, such as on another floor of the house, in a room or outside in the backyard by themselves
• Tantrums or meltdowns before or during separations (anticipation of separation can trigger tantrums)
• Physical ailments: headaches, stomachaches, muscle pains from tension, racing heart, shortness of breath or dizziness (particularly on school days or just prior to separation)
• Emotions: worry, fear, anger, embarrassment or shame.
There are many triggers which may cause separation anxiety in older children and teens.
In school-aged children, symptoms may appear due to a change in routine or after spending prolonged periods of time with parents or caregivers.
These often manifest following the summer months as children return to school after spending a prolonged period of time with parents at home.
Or, children may exhibit these symptoms when transitioning to a new school, such as from elementary to middle, or middle to high school.
Separation anxiety is also common in older children who may be experiencing a traumatic life event, such as the divorce of their parents, an older sibling moving out of the home, or a family move to a new area.
Separation anxiety is most likely to emerge during stressful times associated with major transitions such as entering elementary school or switching to middle school. It is also more likely to occur following an extended amount of time with the parent (such as being home for weeks on vacation, a holiday break, or following a lengthy time at home due to illness). In some cases, separation anxiety may emerge following a major trauma in the child’s life, such as the death of a family member or a move to a new neighborhood and school. And some children or teenagers might have sudden-onset or acute worsening of separation anxiety following an infection, even a mild or short-lived one.
Even teens nearing adulthood can experience separation anxiety — particularly following high school graduation.
Being on their own for the first time, and losing the security of having parents and family nearby, can be very traumatic for teens, and can bring about symptoms such as headache, fatigue, or an unrealistic concern that something will happen to them or their family while they are adjusting to this new environment.
Therapist Kristin McClure writes on her blog:
You can imagine how disruptive this could be to a teens life! Not only may these feelings prevent them from going to school, but from working, having normal social and peer relationships, and accomplishing the tasks of normal adolescents.
Adolescence is a time when children separate from their parents and define their individuality, and they come to identify more with their peers than their family. Separation anxiety can disrupt this entire process and prevent the normal development necessary for teens to become happy fulfilled and productive adults.
In early childhood, parents are more aware of the causes of children’s behavior. But when they get older, children are less likely to open up about their anxieties and fears, especially if they feel pressure to be “grown up” and attain independence from their parents.
So what can parents do to alleviate the symptoms of separation anxiety in older children?
In older children and teens, parents must be aware of any physical or emotional distress surrounding a major life change.
Engaging an older child in discussion about their feelings can make them more open to sharing what they are going through, and parents can also share stories of times they may have experienced similar feelings when they were younger.
Help your child to connect their feelings to worries they may have, and remain calm and supportive, even if the worries are unrealistic or unfounded.
Let them know that separation anxiety is perfectly normal when they are experiencing the loss of a person or environment they are attached to, but be vigilant to monitor these feelings lasting for a prolonged amount of time or causing severe symptoms that affect their health, school performance, or ability to build other relationships.
In children from kindergarten to middle school, establish a consistent routine to bridge the home and school transition each day.
Encourage positive discussions about their day, and allay their fears by giving them something to look forward to when they return home. Planning a special meal, movie or game night will reinforce that their safe environment is not far away.
In older children in the middle and high school years, encourage independence while providing boundaries.
Give your children the opportunity to take healthy risks to face separation fears. For some, this may mean going to an overnight camp or weekend trip with a family friend where they will have the responsibility to take care of themselves for a few days.
Above all, be the constant in your child’s life as you always have been. Encourage them to try new things and take on more responsibility with the knowledge you are always available for advice or just to listen.
(h/t Mommy Underground)