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Separation anxiety: Apparently it’s not just for toddlers


At the beginning of the summer, my independent, active and social 11-year-old daughter declared that she couldn’t fall asleep in her own room. Despite my husband singing her a medley of songs from Gordon Lightfoot, the Beatles and Elvis, and me reading with her, she would drag a pillow and bedspread into our room and nestle on the floor. Within minutes, she was fast asleep.

Fast-forward four months filled with many nights of discussing, probing, coaxing, arguing, insisting, begging and bribing, and the bedspread and pillow are still there. They have been joined by a sleeping bag stuffed with a body pillow that makes a great mattress, a favorite blanket and Black Kitty, her lovey since birth.

I talked to fellow moms of tweens at her school and in our neighborhood and learned we’re not alone. Other girls — and boys — her age also seemed to be regressing, not only refusing to sleep alone but also shunning activities they have previously enjoyed, including overnight sleepovers with good friends and overnight camps. I also heard reports of kids not wanting parents to leave the house for work. When we told our daughter and her older brother we planned to travel a few hours to a bed-and-breakfast for our anniversary, she firmly put her foot down, told us we couldn’t, and refused to spend the night with her aunt and uncle who live nearby. (After several sobbing episodes about the subject, we realized we could not inflict that on the aunt and uncle and stayed home).

What is happening here, I wondered? Is late-onset separation anxiety really a thing? Or are we just the latest suckers in a long line of manipulated parents? And what do we do about it?

In young children, from toddlers to around age 6, separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate. In fact, “the lack of separation anxiety may even signal problems for young children,” says Catherine Bagwell, a professor of psychology who studies children’s social development at Oxford College of Emory University in Georgia.

Separation anxiety in teens and tweens is also real condition, and it’s not new, says Chris Gonzalez, the director of marriage and family therapy at Lipscomb University in Nashville. “It is most commonly thought of as a childhood condition, but the reality is that separation anxiety can occur at any age, even in adulthood,” Gonzalez says. But when it interferes with a child’s ability to engage in expected activities, such as going to school or going outside to play, it could be a sign of a separation anxiety disorder.

What does childhood anxiety look like? Probably not what you think.

Signs of a more serious disorder include physical symptoms, such as stomachaches, headaches and trouble sleeping, according to Don Mordecai, a psychiatrist with Kaiser Permanente who focuses on adolescents and young adults. Other warning signs include resisting (or outright refusing) going to school, camps or other activities that would cause separation; extreme concern that bad things may happen to a parent or caregiver during periods of separation; and emotional outbursts or even tantrums. Gonzalez also notes that refusal to sleep apart from “significant attachment figures” is a common symptom. With children and adolescents, the symptoms need to last four weeks or more to be considered a disorder.

Check, check and check. But what is causing this now?

Separation anxiety is not just about being away from protective figures such as parents and other caregivers. “It’s more about wanting the world to stand still so that they don’t have to move ahead,” says Jeanette Raymond, a psychologist in private practice in Los Angeles. “Transitions are hard for kids, and from 10-plus there are many subtle transitions that cause huge internal conflicts, so bringing them into the foreground and talking about them is essential to make the kids feel okay,” she says.

That rang true as I thought about the world our kids inhabit — bullying at school, a hyper-charged political climate, the onslaught of pervasive technology even with strict rules at home, and a constant barrage of activities in which they could participate, even if they choose not to. Was my daughter trying to indicate that she needs the world to slow down?

Then again, the problem could be us. Parents can be the cause, or at least a contributing factor, to children regressing, Raymond says.

“Sometimes parents may feel a sense of loss as their kids grow up — that their ‘babies’ no longer need them in the same way — that something precious is being lost, and give off that vibe to their kids without meaning to,” she says. “The parents need to grieve and come to terms with the loss as they feel it. That will set the kids free from enacting separation anxiety that actually belongs to the parents.”

After getting our own heads on straight, how do we help our kids deal with separation? Experts say to not avoid it.

“The key to helping an anxious person is gradually facing a fear,” says Amy Przeworski, an associate professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University who specializes in anxiety disorders. “What we know about anxiety is that it automatically decreases if you stay in the situation.” She explains that the body has a “braking” system to automatically calm itself down after an initial fearful response.

So while it may seem counterintuitive, if we leave our kids in an anxiety-inducing situation, their fears will automatically decrease.

But the transition can be gradual, Przeworski says. For example, for a child who is afraid to sleep without a parent or caregiver in bed with them, the first step may be the child sleeping on the floor near the parent’s bed but not in the parent’s bed. Do that for about a week, then move him farther from the parent’s bed. Again, do that for a week. Gradually the child moves farther away, until he is sleeping in his own bed.

“The child will experience anxiety during this process,” Przeworski says. “But that is precisely what we want — for the child to learn that their anxiety will automatically reduce, that the experience of anxiety is something that they can handle, and that nothing bad will happen during separation.”

Mordecai suggests getting the child’s input when you are working on the solution. “Learn what kind of strategies they think would work best to help them manage their anxiety over being apart and incorporate these solutions into the approach you take.”

In more extreme cases, the parents will likely need to connect with professionals — including a pediatrician, a mental health provider and school personnel — to help the child set up a plan to successfully manage their anxiety, Mordecai says. They can also try to find a therapist on the Anxiety and Depression Association of America’s website.

In addition to taking gradual steps to ease her back into her own room and talking about her daily concerns to help my girl work through the anxiety, I also took advice from a known expert: Professor Dumbledore.

At the end of “The Sorcerer’s Stone,” the headmaster of Hogwarts explains to Harry Potter that “love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.”

Harry’s protection comes in the form of a lightning-shaped scar.

My daughter doesn’t have a scar. But she wears a purple cord necklace with a single saltwater pearl that, I tell her, is a reminder that mom’s love is with her wherever she goes. We bought it together on summer vacation, when we had an hour to ourselves and she felt free to talk about a few of the things bothering her.

She never takes it off.

Carol Kaufmann is a writer and editor who lives in Alexandria, Va. Find her on Twitter @KaufmannCarol.

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