Scitech | Cutting the cord

Children who repress feelings more affected by separation anxiety

Remember your first day of kindergarten? Whether you do or not, intuitively, it seems obvious that if you are nurtured by a group of people during the first five years of your life, getting separated on a regular basis from these people might be an unsettling experience. But are you aware of how your early life shaped your behaviour?

Marco Battaglia, a professor of psychiatry at Université Laval who specializes in developmental psychology, has some answers to this question. “I find separation anxiety in children to be a fascinating subject,” Battaglia told The Daily. “Separation anxiety is a great origination of evolution [that] has come to all mammals with parenting, the process of taking care of one’s offspring.”

While it is considered natural to experience some level of anxiety when facing separation from an attachment figure, such as a child’s parents, in preschool years, separation anxiety disorder (SAD) arises when a child’s response to this separation become excessive and uncharacteristic of the child’s age. Symptoms of SAD include persistent stress and worry related to such separation. In a study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry in April 2015, Battaglia and colleagues from several universities, most of which are in Quebec, looked at 1,933 families with children ages 1.5 to six years and attempted to identify patterns in the development of SAD, including risk factors. While the vast majority of the subjects showed greatly reduced symptoms by the time they were six years old, 6.9 per cent were identified as having “high-increasing” symptoms.

“What is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the high-increasing group is that it was the closest to having purely internalized behaviours,” Battaglia pointed out. In contrast with external behaviours, such as physical aggressiveness toward others, internalized behaviours include withdrawing from social interactions and repressing feelings.

Battaglia suggests that teachers could be very helpful in spotting and assessing SAD in children. His recent study looks at kindergarten teachers’ ratings of separation anxiety. When asked if he thought teachers were properly equipped to deal with cases of SAD, Battaglia said, “I found teachers in [the] different Western cultures in which I have conducted research to be, on average, really good sources who are fairly well-equipped with basic psychology.” The different angle they offer on a child’s behaviour also turns out to be an insightful perspective, as a child may act differently in the presence of parents versus in the presence of friends at school. This is why speaking to sources external to the family can be valuable, especially since children usually spend most of their time with other children. “If both the parents and the teachers notice the same thing, then it is more likely something true,” Battaglia noted.

A striking feature of SAD in children is that it is not limited to separation from parents or their principal caregiver, as humans have the ability to form multiple figures of attachment. A 1988 study published in Developmental Psychology and conducted in kibbutz communities, communal settlements in Israel, investigated this capacity. “While kibbutz children know who their mothers or their fathers are, they can be raised by several figures. A few studies suggest that, on average, they may have less of a capacity to deal with separation and build autonomous attachment,” the study notes. For instance, separation from grandparents and siblings can also result in anxiety for a child. As for how many figures constitute the upper threshold for strong attachments, Battaglia estimates that humans are capable of building “more than two, but certainly less than ten.” This study sheds light on the impact of caregiving figures in a child’s life beyond their principal guardians.

Although how SAD affects children is fairly well-established, the extent to which it can evolve into adulthood is controversial. “Some of my colleagues support the presence of separation anxiety in adults. I am personally more reserved,” Battaglia said. According to the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the guideline for diagnosing SAD in children under 18 is to observe persistent symptoms over at least four weeks, while a period of six months is recommended for adults. “The rationale for the DSM rules is data. I feel [there is a] need for more data on SAD in adulthood,” said Battaglia. “Besides, there is still so much to learn from separation anxiety in childhood.”