Separation Anxiety 101

Separation Anxiety 101

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Updated on Jul 15, 2009

“Please don’t make me go to school.” If you are hearing this from your child, it might be a sign of separation anxiety. While separation anxiety can happen any time, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry says it's most common in children between the ages of 5-7 and 11-14—when kids have to deal with new challenges in elementary and middle school.

"About 10-15% of all school children can experience separation anxiety at some time, for a variety of reasons," notes Diane Peters Mayer, a psychotherapist and author of Overcoming School Anxiety: How to Help Your Child Deal With Separation, Tests, Homework, Bullies, Math Phobia, and Other Worries. The key is to recognize what's happening with your child and helping her learn to control her emotions. Here are answers to common questions about separation anxiety.

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?

While tantrums, clinging, and refusing to be left alone are some of the main symptoms of separation anxiety, children may also experience the following:

  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Shakiness or trembling
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Revved up respiration
  • Excessive worry that something bad will happen to their parents or themselves
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting

Children may certainly not exhibit all of these symptoms, and they will generally not recognize these symptoms as being "anxious", notes Peters Mayer. They will likely tell you: "My stomach hurts," or "I have a headache," and will be vocal about not wanting to leave home.

When children experience separation anxiety, it's nearly impossible to get them to participate and benefit from the lessons of school, let alone have fun. "It's almost impossible for children with separation anxiety to think, reason, or socialize in school because they are truly in survivor mode," says Peters Mayer. "All they know is they want to go home, and the school environment becomes very stressful—every part of it becomes stressful."

What causes separation anxiety?

First day jitters are 100% normal, so don't attribute night before nervous feelings to separation anxiety. However, there are particular traits and temperaments that make some children more prone to experiencing anxiety.

"Some children's temperament or their degree of sensitivity makes them more prone to having anxiety," notes Peters Mayer. "Additionally, if a parent in the house has anxiety, this increases the child's chances of developing separation anxiety or separation anxiety disorder."

When the first day of school comes, a sensitive child may become stressed and have physical manifestations of the stress such as having a stomach ache after being left alone at school. When Day 2 comes around, Peters Mayer explains that these kids remember their feelings from the previous day and start to anticipate feeling their symptoms again--thus causing anxiety to form around the act of going to school.

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