Separation Anxiety And The Insecure Child
When I was twelve years old I went on a French exchange with my school. This involved me staying with a French family for a fortnight. Although they were all perfectly nice people (from what I could make out from my extremely limited ability to communicate with them) I became extremely homesick (even though my home life was very unhappy, but such is the paradoxical nature of the condition) and cried everyday, insisting I telephoned my mother. The parents of my French exchange partner were very tolerant,and, despite the cost, permitted me to do this uncomplainingly.
Then, when I was seventeen (I was now living with my father and step-mother), I was due to go on an American exchange trip ( this time for a whole month) but developed a mysterious fever a couple of days before I was due to go which was serious enough for my doctor to instruct me that I would be unable to travel.
Developing physical illness as a child in response to anticipated or actual separation from home is a classic symptom of a childhood psychiatric condition known as separation anxiety.
Before I talk about this condition more generally, here is one last example of how I manifested this form of anxiety as a very young child (long before the two examples given above occurred). Apparently, if I was out walking (or, in my case, toddling) with my mother and it was windy, I would become very frightened, hysterically so, in fact, that I would be physically blown away and would hold onto my mother’s (frigid) hand as if my very life depended upon it. This represents another classic example of separation anxiety.
Above: How I might have looked being carried off by the wind as a toddler and my mother’s likely obliviousness to the fact.
I have other examples, but these three will, I think, suffice for now.
How Common Is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is the most prevalent type of childhood anxiety condition (other types include obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobia, social anxiety and generalised anxiety disorder).
Approximately 1 in 20 children will suffer from it at any given time and females are more likely to be affected by it than males, all else being equal. The disorder is most likely to manifest itself when the child is between about 7 and 9 years of age but can also develop in children as young as 2 years old as well as in adolescents as old as seventeen years (myself being a case in point).
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
The condition can occur in response to traumatic, early childhood experiences such as the mother not being reliably available (physically, emotionally or both) during the child’s babyhood. Also, it can manifest itself after a major traumatic family event such as parental divorce or life-threatening illness of a parent. Also, if a child is emotionally insecure and feels deprived of love, attention and protection, the condition is also much more likely to develop. Finally, it is likely that certain genetic and biological factors can make a child more susceptible to the adverse effects of early stressors like those described and, therefore, such a child is at increased risk.
How Is Separation Anxiety Diagnosed?
As the name of the condition suggests, a child who suffers from it displays severe anxiety if s/he has to separate from his/ her primary care-giver for a period of time (or anticipates having to do so). For a formal diagnosis (and that can only be made by a properly qualified and experienced professional) the level of anxiety the disorder gives rise to in the child must cause him/her significant distress. A further stipulation for a formal diagnosis is that symptoms of the condition must have been present for a minimum time period of 4 weeks.
What Specific Symptoms Can Separation Anxiety Produce?
A child who is suffering from separation anxiety may:
– exhibit extreme homesickness when away from home
– refuse to be left alone in a room
– refuse to sleep in a room alone
– suffer nightmares that centre around themes of abandonment, rejection and separation from caregivers
– exhibit extreme distress when separated from primary caregivers or when anticipating such separation
– refuse to go to school
– continually follow the primary caregiver around the house
– exhibit fear of primary caregivers dying or becoming seriously ill even when they are perfectly healthy
– display a constant need to know where parents are
– become extremely distressed if primary caregivers are late arriving home
– develop somatic (ie physical) conditions (such as headache, nausea, stomach upset etc) when separated from primary caregivers or anticipates separation
Separation anxiety can only be diagnosed and treated by appropriately qualified and experienced professionals. Available treatments include cognitive behavioral therapy and certain medications. In the UK, the first port of call is likely to be a GP or school psychologist/ counselor.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).