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 a level of 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.
What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Separation anxiety disorder is a developmentally inappropriate and excessive fear regarding separation from attachment figures. This fear or worry is consistent and specific, centered around the idea of “What if something bad happens?” This may be in regard to the safety of a loved one while someone with separation anxiety disorder can’t be with them, or about their personal safety when their attachment figure(s) aren’t with them. These thoughts will start to impair daily functioning to the point of avoiding going places or causing physical discomfort like nausea and headaches.
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. Separation anxiety disorder usually occurs in children, but adults can also have the condition. One sign of separation anxiety disorder is for the symptoms to continue occuring for an extended period of time.
Separation anxiety in adults needs six months of observed symptoms for a diagnosis, though separation anxiety disorder can be diagnosed after four weeks in children and adolescents.
What Are 3 Signs of Separation Anxiety?
Three common signs and symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:
- Significant distress 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 their attachment figures.
- Lack of independence or social connections outside of immediate loved ones, such as fearing staying the night away somewhere for multiple days or having serious trouble sleeping while away.
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.
What Are Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder?
In addition to the three common signs above, common symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:
- Emotional distress
- Anxious mood
- Big emotions like fear, aggression, or shutdown (especially in children)
- Nausea, stomach pain
- Recurring nightmares
It’s important to note that these symptoms can occur separately without being necessarily tied to separation anxiety disorder. Because of this, it’s important to talk to a specialist about your symptoms in order to receive an accurate diagnosis and get the right treatment. These symptoms also need to be severe enough to be interfering with one’s daily life in order to be attributed to the disorder.
What Symptoms Appear With Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children?
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 attachment figures, especially parents
- Lack of interest in forming friendships with other children, or spending short periods away from attachment figures
- 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, or may be chronically irritable or experience mood swings.
What Is the Root Cause of Separation Anxiety?
Though there isn’t a confirmed root cause for every case of separation anxiety disorder, it can be caused by a “bad” event occurring, such as a traumatic event, divorce, disaster, or even something like switching schools. Children with overly-protective parents may also experience separation anxiety because they’ve been raised to be less independent.
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 with our attachment figures, which often affect the way we behave in our romantic relationships and home life later on. Adults who have insecure 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. Other 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
- A frightening experience involving one or more attachment figures
- Inherited traits (via social/observational learning or a genetic predisposition)
The causes of separation anxiety can be unique, yet the presenting symptoms are often similar, even when accounting for age and life experiences.
What Is the Difference Between Separation Anxiety and Separation Anxiety Disorder?
There is no real difference between separation anxiety disorder and separation anxiety, at least in colloquial terms. The terms are often used interchangeably.
Technically, though, they can be separated by their severity if necessary. The term “separation anxiety” might be used to describe a momentary instance of anxiety regarding being separated from a loved one, while separation anxiety disorder will always refer to a diagnosed disorder that interferes with one’s ability to function and live life.
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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
- Hearing about bad things that happened to other people, leading them to think it will happen to them
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.
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, caretakers, or other attachment figures.
Separation anxiety disorder symptoms in adults can also start occurring after a negative or fear-inducing experience involving their attachment figure, such as their partner or child.
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, such as when they start school or go to an overnight camp for the first time.
However, after four 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 six months or longer (according to the DSM-5) for their condition to be classified as separation anxiety disorder.
How Can You Fix Separation Anxiety?
If you believe you or your child are suffering from separation anxiety disorder, 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
- Exposure 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.