Ten-month-old Anna is playing happily with her stacking toy -- until her mother steps out of the room to answer the phone. The second she leaves, Anna starts to cry. Soon after her mother returns, the crying stops.
Anna has separation anxiety, a normal developmental stage experienced by nearly all children starting when they're between 10 and 18 months old and usually lasting until age 2. The anxiety sometimes returns when the child is older, such as when she goes to preschool for the first time.
Common symptoms include crying, clinging, and throwing tantrums when separated from primary caregivers. Crying at bedtime is also common. A child who is upset because of separation anxiety is not always easily comforted by another adult.
By age 10 months, children have developed a healthy attachment to their caregivers and may become anxious when separated from them. By age 2, the child is able to understand that although a parent may leave, she also comes back.
Rachel Busman, Psy.D., clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute's Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center in New York City, says having routines and having plans can help. Her advice:
Most separation anxiety is perfectly normal and eases on its own. When it doesn't, it can develop into separation anxiety disorder, which affects between 4 percent and 5 percent of all children and adolescents. It may interfere with a child's ability to go to school, be part of a family, have fun, and make friends. Warning signs may include (but are not limited to):
Not all of these signs need to be present in order for a child to have separation anxiety disorder, so if you notice any of them in a child older than 4 or 5, speak to your pediatrician or a child psychiatrist. "Once it's diagnosed, there are excellent treatments that can help a child face situations that involve separation," says Dr. Busman. "These treatments involve facing fears in a systematic way with lots of support, and they work really well." She stresses the importance of early intervention: "The earlier you get this under control, the better."
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