Separation anxiety is real for kids (and adults)

April 04, 2019 | by Laura Koehler, Psy.D.

Ever had your child cling to your leg and bawl his/her eyes out when you try to leave for work or the store? Young children often feel threatened and unsafe when separated from their parent. In fact, separation anxiety is a normal part of development for children ages 6 months to 3 years.

But sometimes symptoms continue into late childhood — and even adulthood.

Yes, adults can struggle with this form of anxiety, too. They may experience high levels of distress, including panic attacks, when their loved one is out of reach. For instance, an adult may avoid a business trip because he/she can’t bear to be away from their spouse or child.

How do you know if it’s an anxiety disorder?

Children and adults with separation anxiety disorder are persistently worried about being separated from someone close to them. A child or adult with separation anxiety disorder may:

  • Worry excessively about their parent/loved one’s well-being
  • Feel unusual distress about being separated from their parent/loved one
  • Have a heightened fear of being alone
  • Need to know where their parent/loved one is at all times
  • Have physical symptoms related to being separated from their parent/loved one (e.g., stomachache, nausea, headache)

A child with separation anxiety may also:

  • Refuse to sleep alone, have repeated nightmares
  • Refuse to go to school
  • Cling excessively to their parent, even at home
  • Have temper tantrums

What causes separation anxiety disorder?

The cause of separation anxiety is not yet known, but it likely involves a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological and developmental factors. It’s often seen alongside other anxiety-related conditions, such as panic disorder, social phobia and agoraphobia. It can also occur after a stressful life event, such as moving, divorce or the death of a loved one.

How is separation anxiety diagnosed?

A medical/mental health professional is needed to make a diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder. Generally, symptoms must persist for at least four weeks in children and six months in adults, and cause impaired functioning. Adult separation anxiety can begin in childhood or adulthood.

How is separation anxiety managed?

Separation anxiety can greatly interfere with daily life. Children may be less willing to participate in school, social activities and other experiences that are crucial to normal development. For adults, the anxiety may be so intense that it’s difficult to function in work and other important areas of life.

Treatment for separation anxiety disorder is similar to therapies used to treat other anxiety disorders and may include medications, psychotherapy (talk therapy) and exposure therapy.

Tips for parents

The American Academy of Pediatrics offers tips for parents to survive separation anxiety:

  • Keep the goodbye short and sweet. If you linger, so will the transition time — and the anxiety.
  • Be consistent. Try to do the same drop-off with the same ritual at the same time each day.
  • When separating, give your child full attention. Be loving and affectionate, then say good-bye quickly despite his/her cries for you to stay.
  • Stick to your promise. Return when you say you’ll return.
  • Be specific, child style. When you discuss your return, define time in a way that your child understands. For example, “I’ll be back after nap time and before afternoon snack.”
  • Practice being apart. Before starting day care or preschool, allow friends and family to provide child care for you (even for an hour) on the weekend, and practice your goodbye ritual then.

If you’re concerned that your child isn’t adapting to being without you, talk with your child’s doctor about it.  

If you are concerned about your own anxieties related to separating from a loved one, talk to your primary care physician, who may recommend professional counseling.

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health problem in the U.S. In fact, more than 40 million adults and 1 in 10 children and adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder in any given year.

Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

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