Separation Anxiety

Why would an 8-year-old, in a secure family, experience severe separation anxiety? What could be going on? What can be done for them?

You’re right that this is not a usual age for separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety is usual in infancy and even in the pre-school years. Very young children are not yet able to imagine where the parent is when he or she isn’t with them. That’s why they scream and cling to your leg when you leave. If a parent is away for a long time it’s as though they’ve lost that parent; that’s why it isn’t a good idea to take a holiday away from children under four years of age.

However, in an eight-year-old it’s a different matter. The most likely cause is something the child has seen or heard which has led her (or him) to believe something bad could happen when you are separated from her. Examples are :
– seeing earthquakes on the news with the suggestion that we could have one here;
– hearing statistics on car accidents
– knowing a child who has been taken into foster care
– hearing about a child or a parent who died
– hearing about someone who abandoned their children
– watching a frightening movie or TV show in which something happened to a child while separated from his parents
– hearing her parents argue and fearing divorce
– a bad dream

We adults have become used to hearing about dangerous events, and most of the time we are able to put them in perspective. We know that even though earthquakes and fatal car accidents happen, they are rare, and unlikely to happen to our own families if we take reasonable precautions. We know that movies and TV shows and dreams aren’t real, and that they have much more violence than real life does. We know that arguments don’t mean divorce, and that divorce doesn’t mean the child loses a parent. Children, however, don’t know about statistics, and in their attempts to make sense of the world they base their ideas about safety on what they see and hear.

Your first step is to ask your child what she (or he) is worried about. Then help them know the truth about that situation – statistics on how often it happens, and so forth – and reassure her about her own safety. If necessary, you can equip her with a cell phone so she can check on your whereabouts from time to time.

There is a slight possibility that something has actually happened to her, something that she isn’t telling you about. If she doesn’t come up with any other reason for the separation anxiety, ask her directly whether something has happened to her that makes her afraid to be apart from you. Sometimes kids just don’t tell their parents everything like this, even though the parents may want them to. I remember having a babysitter who locked my brother in his bedroom and made out on the couch with her boyfriend, with me watching. It never occurred to me to tell, even though I was very uncomfortable with the situation. I think I just assumed my parents would know about things like this – but of course, they didn’t. Make sure ahead of time that your children are expected to tell you anything uncomfortable that happens when they are with a sitter or staying with relatives or strangers. If a child seems particularly uncomfortable with a certain adult, ask about it.

Once you know the source of the problem, and have removed any potential dangers, don’t just give in to your child’s separation anxiety. She needs to know that you can leave her somewhere, that both of you will be safe, and that you will return. She will never gain that security unless you do leave her.

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