- Separation anxiety is a state of mind characterized by distress as a result of being apart from loved ones or worrying about being separated from them.
- Adults, teens, and children can all experience separation anxiety–and when this state of mind becomes persistent, a mental health evaluation may classify it as separation anxiety disorder.
- Trauma, ambivalent attachment styles, family history of anxiety disorders, overly-protective parents, and past experiences with a loved one’s illness or death can cause or contribute to separation anxiety.
- Separation anxiety is normal in children between 18 months and 3 years of age—but beyond this point, persistent separation anxiety may be classified as separation anxiety disorder if certain criteria are met.
- If an individual is diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, the treatment methods utilized by a therapist or psychiatrist will partially depend on their age. Common approaches include CBT, DBT, SSRIs, benzodiazepines, family therapy, and child therapy.
As toddlers and young children, we quickly and naturally form strong emotional bonds with our parents or caretakers. As a result, being apart from them at an early age is often accompanied by separation anxiety. These feelings of distress are a normal stage of childhood development—but sometimes, our recurring fear of being separated from our loved ones doesn’t fade away as we get older. Instead, separation anxiety (which, when diagnosed professionally, is known as separation anxiety disorder) can continue even into later stages of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
This condition can create a constant challenge for those who are struggling to cope with being apart from the people they care about. While some people may suffer from separation anxiety for years, separation anxiety can be successfully treated and managed with a provider’s help. Remission of separation anxiety-related symptoms is even possible. Professional assistance can be the key to recovery, but recognizing the signs of separation anxiety at different stages of development and how it’s treated is an essential first step.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a recurring fear of being apart from parents, family, or other loved ones. Separation anxiety may come about as a result of irrational thoughts based on past life experiences but can also be sparked by completely rational worries situated around current life events or circumstances.
What Are 3 Signs of Separation Anxiety?
Three common signs and symptoms of separation anxiety (or separation anxiety disorder) include:
- Significant stress as a result of being separated (whether real or imagined) from family or romantic partners.
- Persistent worries related to “what-if” scenarios, including (but not limited to) the deaths of those close to them or irrational concerns about being abandoned by loved ones.
- Lack of independence or social connections outside of immediate loved ones.
Other symptoms can include difficulty performing well at school or work because of their separation anxiety symptoms. Recurring nightmares about the death, illness, or disappearance of loved ones may also be present. Even physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, and migraines have been reported.
What Are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder?
The symptoms of separation anxiety disorder are the same as the symptoms of separation anxiety, as listed above. The only difference is that while anyone can experience separation anxiety, it isn’t able to be classified as a disorder until professionally diagnosed by a licensed mental health professional.
What Are the Causes of Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is most common in children and people of all ages who tend toward ambivalent attachment styles. Attachment styles are deep emotional tendencies and habits we form in early childhood, which often affect the way we behave in our romantic relationships and home life later on. Adults who have less secure attachment styles may be more susceptible to developing certain anxiety disorders.
Even in teens and adults, the roots of separation anxiety are typically formed in childhood—meaning that the causes of separation anxiety in sufferers of all ages are often similar. The causes of (and contributors to) separation anxiety can include:
- Childhood trauma
- Ambivalent attachment styles
- A family history of anxiety disorders
- Overly-involved parents
- Imbalances in brain chemistry
The causes of separation anxiety can be unique, yet the presenting symptoms are often similar, even when accounting for age and life experiences.
What Are the Common Triggers of Separation Anxiety?
Some common triggers of separation anxiety can include:
- Summer schools or camps that require significant time away from home
- Parents who frequently travel for work or leisure
- Adverse childhood experiences
- Sibling rivalries (which may leave anxiety-prone kids susceptible to feelings of isolation)
- Bullying at school, during extracurricular activities, or within the community at large
- Overly-protective parents
Just as with adults and adolescents, children can have unique experiences that may cause separation anxiety—but these symptoms should typically pass in time. However, this is not always the case.
At What Age Is Separation Anxiety Normal?
As stated previously, separation anxiety is normal in young children, specifically those between 18 months and 3 years of age. At this age, nearly all children will experience distress during separation from their parents, but past 3 years of age, separation anxiety is no longer “normal.” After 4 weeks of continuous symptoms, a mental health professional can diagnose a child’s anxiety as separation anxiety disorder.
For adults, their symptoms must be present for 6 months or longer (according to the DSM-5) for their condition to be classified as separation anxiety disorder.
How Do I Fix Separation Anxiety?
If you believe you’re suffering from separation anxiety disorder, or that your child is, the first step in fixing the issue is to seek assistance from a mental health professional. From there, forms of treatment may include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- Antidepressant medications, most often selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- Family therapy
While these are the most predominant forms of treatment, you and your provider will likely find a unique balance of treatment methods that help you or your child to successfully manage and mitigate the harmful emotional and physiological effects of separation anxiety.
Separation Anxiety In Children
What Symptoms Does a Child With Separation Anxiety Have?
Children who are experiencing separation anxiety (or who have been diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder) will often present the following symptoms:
- Nightmares about being separated from (or rejected by) family or caretakers, the death of relatives, or being taken away from loved ones
- Temper tantrums when separated from family members, especially parents
- Lack of interest in forming friendships with other children, or spending short periods away from family
- Physical issues, such as nausea, headaches, or sensitivity to loud noises or bright lights
- Refusing to attend school or daycare
- Screaming, yelling, crying, or becoming physically violent when separation from their loved ones seems imminent
Symptoms of adults, teens, and children with separation anxiety are often similar but may be expressed differently, depending on their life experiences and maturity levels. An adult with separation anxiety is unlikely to throw a temper tantrum but may still suffer nightmares about losing their loved ones.
What Challenges Does a Child with Separation Anxiety Face?
A child with separation anxiety will face difficulties forming meaningful relationships with other children and may struggle to excel or improve academically. Extracurricular activities, including sports, field trips, or other opportunities may present significant challenges for a child who is experiencing separation anxiety, as they will be forced to spend time apart from their parents, family, or caretakers.
What Causes a Child to Have Separation Anxiety?
In children, the causes of separation anxiety can be more broad than the symptoms presented, but common factors include childhood trauma, including adverse childhood experiences—which may deeply impact a child’s ability to feel secure without the constant presence of their parents or caretakers.
Children with overly-protective parents may also experience separation anxiety because they’ve been raised to be less independent. Additionally, children from families with a history of anxiety disorders or brain chemistry imbalances may also be susceptible.
How Is Separation Anxiety Diagnosed In a Child?
Separation anxiety in children can be identified by the symptoms listed earlier. But for a child to be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, that requires a mental health evaluation from a licensed therapist or psychiatrist. To get an accurate understanding of the child’s home environment, personality, and psychological well-being, a provider will conduct a face-to-face (or virtual) interview, possibly using play therapy to observe how the child interacts with their surroundings.
Though the child’s parents will likely be present for the evaluation, it’s not uncommon for parents to leave the room for a brief while, for the therapist or psychiatrist to gain more insight into how the child copes with being separated from their parent or caretaker. The provider will likely ask the child questions related to their thoughts and feelings about certain situations at home, school, or daycare that make them feel anxious or uncomfortable.
In order for a child to be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, they must meet the DSM-5’s criterium, which says 3 or more of the following symptoms must be present and last more than 4 weeks for children (and more than 6 months for adults). The DSM-5’s list of symptoms includes:
- Regular excessive distress when separated from home or from certain individuals.
- Regular excessive worry about losing these individuals or about them being harmed.
- Regular worry about experiencing an unfortunate event (such as getting lost or ill) that causes separation from their attachment figures.
- Persistent reluctance or refusal to go anywhere or do anything out of fear of separation.
- Persistent reluctance or refusal to sleep away from home or from the attachment figures.
- Frequent nightmares about separation.
- Frequent complaints of physical symptoms, such as headaches or nausea, when he or she is separated from attachment figures or anticipating this separation.
- This separation fear or anxiety causes clinically concerning distress or impairment in important areas of life.
- The individual’s excessive fear of separation cannot be attributed to another mental disorder.
As previously explained, experiencing temporary separation anxiety and coping with a diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder are different—separation anxiety is often a passing state of mind, while separation anxiety disorder is persistent. Though the symptoms are the same, the timeframe for the condition being classified as a disorder is much longer.
How Do You Help a Child With Separation Anxiety?
The best way to help a child with separation anxiety is to find assistance from a licensed mental health professional. But that doesn’t mean as a parent, family member, or caretaker that your role isn’t important. Children with separation anxiety may not see the nature of their condition clearly, but that doesn’t make their suffering any less real. Children must be reassured that they are loved, supported, and not alone. Yelling at, scolding, or spanking a child to discipline them when their separation anxiety becomes overbearing can create trauma, and halt their progress.
As an adult, you may see the situation with more clarity—and a child will not understand why you’re angry with them. They love you and feel safe and protected in your company. With the assistance of a professional, you can be the solid foundation on which they build their confidence, maturity, and independence. But with any task worth accomplishing, their progress will take them. Helping a child with separation anxiety means having patience with them and with yourself, too.