Treatments for Children with Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety  TreatmentContrary to popular belief, separation anxiety is a “normal” part of childhood development. During this phase, children become worried, concerned or anxious when separated from their parents or placed in an unfamiliar situation or environment.

It is quite common for children under the age of three to develop mild separation anxiety. As children age, they may experience separation anxiety as a result of a medical condition, changing schools, relocating to another state or country, starting a new school, going through a divorce, losing a family member, friend ,pet or gaining a new sibling.

Mild cases of separation anxiety rarely require treatment, but moderate-to-severe cases (that interfere with the child’s ability to function) can require counseling or medications. If you are wondering what treatments are available for children with separation anxiety. This article will help you determine what treatment can best help your child overcome a separation phobia.

Treatments

Treatment for children with moderate-to-severe separation anxiety may involve helping them understand why they are experiencing separation anxiety, improving their self-esteem and self-confidence and reassuring them that the separation is only temporary. Remember, mild separation anxiety is healthy and “normal.” It is only when it gets to the point, that it interferes with your child’s ability to function that you should seek medical advice.

The main purpose of separation anxiety treatment is to help your child overcome illogical or excessive fears, worries and concerns. These children need to feel loved and protected in their environments (i.e. school, home or church.) in order to trust themselves and others. Moreover, these children must feel confident that they will see you again, if separated.

The treatment plan may consist of psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, medications or a combination of all three. One of the most common psychotherapeutic treatments for separation anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy. This treatment method helps children understand how their thoughts influence their behaviors.

During a cognitive-behavioral therapy session, the therapist helps these children restructure their thought processes so that they can behave in a healthier and more positive way. Family therapy is another highly effective way to treat separation anxiety in children.

This treatment approach involves the whole family in the treatment process. During a family therapy session, the therapist helps the family improve its communication and problem-solving skills so that issues can be resolved in a healthier and more productive way. In other words, the purpose is to improve family dynamics so that these children feel more confident and secure within their family context.

The therapist also educates family members on separation anxiety and teaches them ways (i.e. activities and exercises)  to help these children overcome their fears, worries and phobias. In some cases, the therapist may suggest that their diets be altered, a set bedtime be established or exercises be incorporated into their daily routine.

It is important to note that in some cases, sugary, fatty or salty foods can trigger or aggravate anxiety attacks. In addition, not getting enough sleep or exercise can cause a child to become anxious or panicky. If psychotherapy and lifestyle changes do not work alone, the therapist may recommend (depending on the age of your child), anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications.

These medications are only used in severe separation anxiety cases. When medications are used to treat separation anxiety in children they are normally combined with psychotherapy  (i.e. individual, groups or family counseling) and lifestyle changes. Anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications have serious side-effects so they are typically the last case option.

Psychotherapy

  • Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy 

A treatment that is beneficial for children with separation anxiety is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). A cognitive-behavioral therapist teaches children how to identify their triggers and recognize the signs of separation anxiety so that they can counter the effects. In other words, children are taught how to connect their feelings with their behaviors. The therapist teaches these children healthier and more positive coping skills for when they are separated from you. The purpose of these coping skills is to prevent or alleviate anxiety. A cognitive-behavioral therapist may also incorporate play therapy (i.e. puppets, dolls, Legos, trucks, figurines, paints, etc,) into the counseling sessions as a way to help these children express themselves and model new skills and behaviors.

  • Family Therapy 

As mentioned previously, family therapy is highly effective in helping children overcome separation anxiety. A family therapist examines the entire family in an effort to understand why the child is experiencing separation anxiety. Is there dysfunction within the family? Child abuse or neglect? Is the child adopted? Has the child been placed in multiple foster homes? Does the parent spend time with the child? Does the family have a history of mental illness? Does the child have any health problems? Are there other children in the home? Is the family going through a divorce or remarriage? Did someone close to the child die recently? A family therapist can provide the family with the tools needed to help these children work past their separation fears and worries. It is important to remember that separation anxiety is not just the child’s problem, it is the whole family’s problem. 

Stress-Management Techniques 

  • Desensitization 

Stress-management techniques can be especially helpful for children suffering from separation anxiety. One particularly effective stress-management technique is desensitization. This treatment modality teaches children how to cope with separation anxiety by assigning increasingly difficult tasks for them to complete. These tasks involve fears, worries, concerns and phobias. A mental health professional assigns anxiety-provoking tasks such as: spending 60 minutes away from you, 120 minutes away from you, a few hours away from you, a day away from you, etc.) until the children do not experience an anxiety attack every time they are separated from loved ones. Over time they become more comfortable being away from you.

  • Relaxation Techniques

Relaxation techniques are very valuable when treating children with separation anxiety. These techniques may involve: deep breathing exercises, meditation, writing in a journal, calling a friend or practicing yoga. These relaxation techniques can help children relax when they feel an anxiety attack approaching and when they are separated from you.

Medications

While psychotherapy, lifestyle changes and stress–management techniques may be sufficient when treating some children with separation anxiety, other children may also benefit from medications. Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have not sanctioned specific medications for the treatment of separation anxiety in children, some FDA medications, used to treat other child-related mental health conditions, have shown success when treating children with separation anxiety. The FDA allows medical professionals to determine whether or not a child-related psychotropic medication is an appropriate treatment for separation anxiety disorder.

As mentioned previously, psychotropic medications (i.e. anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications) are only used in severe cases of separation anxiety. Medications that are sometimes prescribed to children with severe separation anxiety include: Celexa, Lexapro, Luvox, Paxil, Prozac, Zoloft and Tofranil. Research suggests that the most effective treatment for severe cases of separation anxiety in children is a combination of psychotherapy and medication.

References: 

Massachusetts General Hospital. (2014). Separation anxiety disorder. Retrieved from             http://www2.massgeneral.org/schoolpsychiatry/info_separationanxiety.asp

National Institute of Mental Health. (2008). Study identifies three effective treatments for   childhood anxiety disorders. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/news/science-  news/2008/study-identifies-three-effective-treatments-for-childhood-anxiety-      disorders.shtml

 

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