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6 Signs Your Child Is Experiencing Separation Anxiety

When It’s More Than Just the Back-to-School Blues

NEW YORK (Aug 21, 2014)

Most children experience some degree of apprehension and excitement as the first day of school approaches, but what does it mean when a child is overcome with fear at the thought of separating from parents and caregivers to go to class?

This overwhelming fear may be a sign of separation anxiety disorder, a condition characterized by a school-aged child's extreme fear and nervousness of separating from loved ones.

"Upwards of 5 percent of children between the ages of 7 and 11 years old suffer from separation anxiety disorder in the United States. In severe cases, this condition can hamper a child’s academic performance and social interactions, and can get in the way of achieving important developmental milestones at the same rate as peers," says Dr. John Walkup, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. "Early detection and treatment is the best way to ensure full recovery."

As parents prepare for the new school year, here are a few telltale signs that a child may be experiencing separation anxiety:

  • Worrying that bad things will happen when separated. Separation fears can be triggered when the child leaves for school or when the parents leave for work or go out for dinner.
  • Refusing to go to school. Dropping your child off at school usually entails long, tearful goodbyes and may escalate to tantrums or a complete refusal to go to school.
  • Difficulty concentrating on schoolwork. Watch for signs of academic difficulties such as inability to follow directions, focus during class or complete assignments. Schoolwork may suffer if a child is overcome by worries related to separation anxiety.
  • Avoiding activities outside of the home. In an effort to limit time spent away from home, a child may avoid participating in activities such as play dates, sleepovers at other children’s homes or school trips.
  • Trouble sleeping. A child may have trouble falling asleep without a parent or caregiver present and may come into the parent's bedroom at night with separation fears. In some instances, the child may have nightmares about separation.
  • Frequent physical complaints. A child may experience headaches, fear of choking or vomiting, difficulty swallowing – especially swallowing pills – and stomach aches in the morning on school days. Once at school, the child may visit the nurse’s office several times in one day seeking to return home.

Although parents and school staff can make accommodations for children with separation anxiety disorder, many children continue to suffer even after substantial accommodations have been made.

There are proven treatments for separation anxiety that can make a big difference in a child's mood, schoolwork and relationships with his or her parents. Treatments can include a specific form of psychotherapy called cognitive behavioral therapy and medication used alone or in combination with psychotherapy.

NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center

NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center, located in New York City, is one of the leading academic medical centers in the world, comprising the teaching hospital NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medical College, the medical school of Cornell University. NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell provides state-of-the-art inpatient, ambulatory and preventive care in all areas of medicine, and is committed to excellence in patient care, education, research and community service. Weill Cornell physician-scientists have been responsible for many medical advances — including the development of the Pap test for cervical cancer; the synthesis of penicillin; the first successful embryo-biopsy pregnancy and birth in the U.S.; the first clinical trial for gene therapy for Parkinson’s disease; the first indication of bone marrow's critical role in tumor growth; and, most recently, the world's first successful use of deep brain stimulation to treat a minimally conscious brain-injured patient. NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital also comprises NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, NewYork-Presbyterian/Morgan Stanley Children's Hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian/Westchester Division, NewYork-Presbyterian/The Allen Hospital, and NewYork-Presbyterian/Lower Manhattan Hospital. The hospital is also closely affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian/Lawrence Hospital in Bronxville. NewYork-Presbyterian is the #1 hospital in the New York metropolitan area and is consistently ranked among the best academic medical institutions in the nation, according to U.S.News & World Report. Weill Cornell Medical College is the first U.S. medical college to offer a medical degree overseas and maintains a strong global presence in Austria, Brazil, Haiti, Tanzania, Turkey and Qatar.

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