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Divorce & Separation Anxiety in Children in Elementary School

by Melody Causewell

Separation anxiety can be a difficult experience for parents and children alike. Fear that something will happen to the parent, anxiety at being alone, nightmares about separation or even bedwetting and headaches may be symptoms of separation anxiety, according to WebMD. Parents transitioning to divorce should understand what separation anxiety is and how it shows up in children so that they can intervene effectively and reduce fear.

Divorce and Anxiety

Children of divorced parents may have higher levels of separation anxiety issues than children of married parents, according to Spanish research. This study, published in the academic journal "Psicothema" evaluated 95 children ages 8 to 12 for symptoms of anxiety and separation issues, and found that the children of divorced parents had increased levels of separation anxiety compared to those of children whose parents remained together. Researchers note that ensuring frequent contact with both parents and promoting cooperation among all involved may serve to decrease anxiety in children by helping them feel secure, thus decreasing separation issues.

Stomach Pain and Separation Issues

Children with separation anxiety issues may show signs of stomach pain in addition to more commonly recognized symptoms of separation anxiety, according to research out of Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Published in the academic journal "Pediatric Annals," this study reported that functional abdominal pain, a very real stomach discomfort, often occurs with separation anxiety in response to the child's fear of being without his parent or others to whom the child is closely attached. These symptoms of pain may increase as the cycle of anxiety increases, and often leads to school absence or avoidance of situations where separation is necessary. Children of divorce who experience stomach problems or other functional pain may benefit from an evaluation for separation anxiety to ensure that the issue is treated appropriately.

Children Can Regain Stability

Initial insecurity and separation anxiety is a normal response to parental separation according to Canadian researchers. This study, published in "Paediatrics and Child Health" in 2000, reports that after this period of distress, most children are able to adapt to their new environments, leading to decreased anxiety over time, particularly when parents find ways to work together and maintain independently high levels of connection to their child. Parents considering divorce should expect some initial anxiety and separation issues, but may find reassurance that this phase is not indefinite.

Storytelling and Decreased Anxiety

Young children with separation anxiety may benefit from a narrative approach to deal with their emotions surrounding divorce, according to German research. Published in "Practice of Child Psychology and Child Psychiatry," this study reports that storytelling and books about divorce may help younger children to identify what they are feeling and decrease the stress associated with it. This type of activity may work by encouraging open dialogue about the fears children may have so that parents and other trusted adults can provide reassurance. Children whose parents are going through a divorce may benefit from this type of storytelling so that they can explore their feelings and subsequently decrease separation anxiety issues.

About the Author

Melody Causewell has been a writer in the mental health field since 2001. She written training manuals and clinical programs for mental health organizations. She has published feature articles "Leaven" magazine and has been published in "Natural Awakenings." She has a degree in psychology, a Masters degree in social work and is a La Leche League leader.

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