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What Is Separation Anxiety? Here's What You Need To Know
separation anxiety
Photo by Gustavo Fring:
Mental Health

What Is Separation Anxiety? Here's What You Need To Know

Research still hasn't identified a true cause for this condition.

When you hear the term separation anxiety, your mind likely imagines a young child crying after being dropped off at school. While it's true that separation anxiety is common among children, many adults experience anxiety when separated from someone they love and are attached to as well. 

Whether you're experiencing separation anxiety or are dealing with a child or loved one who is experiencing intense separation anxiety when apart from you, separation anxiety is a very real disorder that may require treatment. Separation Anxiety Disorder is diagnosed by a licensed professional using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (currently, DSM-V).

This article will cover what separation anxiety is, its mental and physical symptoms, how separation anxiety impacts children and adults, and how to address these issues including how to prevent Separation Anxiety Disorder and how to treat Separation Anxiety Disorder. 

What Is Separation Anxiety?

separation anxiety pet
(Photo by Eric Ward on Unsplash)

Separation anxiety is a mental health disorder that causes excessive fear, anxiety, upset and even physical complaints when a person is separated from an individual they are attached to. In children, this attachment is typically to a parent or caregiver. In adults, separation anxiety can occur when separated from a close relative, romantic partner or even an animal. 

Separation anxiety disorder explained

What causes separation anxiety? Research still hasn't identified a true cause for this condition, however, some studies suggest that separation anxiety in adults may be triggered by a life upset or loss. For example, losing someone close to you or having someone you love move far away. 

Separation anxiety is also typically seen in conjunction with other disorders such as panic disorder, anxiety disorder and agoraphobia. 

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In both children and adults, being away from a caretaker or loved one can create normal separation anxiety. This is categorized as mild anxiety or fear when separated from a parent or family, particularly for the first time. Examples can include a young child going to school for the first time, teenagers leaving home for college or having your spouse or partner embark on their first long business trip away from you.

While our natural fight or flight response is to be on the offense during times of change, particularly being left on our own, over time these feelings normally subside. However, in cases of separation anxiety, the fear and worry that occur when separated tend to grow and become more extreme. 

Separation anxiety in babies

A child's separation anxiety can start as early as six months. Around this age, babies don't yet understand object permanence. This means that they don't fully understand that even though an object or person is not visible, it still exists. At about six months of age, infants remember their caregivers but because they haven't fully grasped object permanence, they feel distressed when that person is not present or can't be heard.

As babies grow more independent, they may become more anxious when separated from their parent or caregiver. Separation anxiety is common – and a normal response – in babies and young children and typically presents most strongly between 10 months to 18 months. 

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However, separation anxiety in children can be triggered and worsened by certain changes. Being introduced to a new caregiver, moving to a new home, losing a parent, a new sibling or extended absence of a parent can all exacerbate symptoms of separation anxiety in children. 

Separation Anxiety Disorder in adults

Though many children outgrow separation anxiety, for some cases, it can continue into adulthood. The fears that children have around separation anxiety are similar to the one’s adults with separation anxiety exhibit. Adults who suffer from separation anxiety have the same fears about being separated from their spouses or children that children with separation anxiety have when being away from their caretakers. 

Signs And Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety

crying child
(Photo by Marco Aurélio Conde on Unsplash)

Though there are some similarities, separation anxiety in children looks different from separation anxiety in adulthood. Here's a look at the signs and symptoms of separation anxiety.

Signs of separation anxiety in children

Crying when a parent leaves the room. Even if your toddler is occupied with a toy or TV show (or has another caretaker nearby), it causes distress as soon as you're not within their view. 

Refusing to leave the parent. This can occur when being dropped off at daycare or school or being left with someone who is not their primary caretaker. 

Not sleeping without the parent. A sudden change in sleep patterns can be an indicator of separation anxiety, especially if the child will not sleep without their parent nearby. 

Signs of separation anxiety in adults

Extreme worry. Persistent thoughts about something bad happening to a spouse, parent or child when they are not with you.

Hesitancy to leave the presence of loved ones. This can include passing up activities with friends or coworkers for fear of not wanting to spend time away from a spouse or family member or developing social anxiety. 

RELATED: What is Social Anxiety Disorder? Signs and Solutions

Difficulty sleeping. Not being able to fall asleep for fear of what may happen to someone you love. 

Depression or anxiety related to the concerns above. Ongoing anxiety and upset around something potentially happening to a loved one (without reasonable cause for this worry) can be a sign of separation anxiety disorder. 

Easing Stress And Coping Mechanisms

separation anxiety baby
(Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash)

Dealing with separation anxiety can be hard for parents of children suffering from it, as well as for adults who have separation anxiety. Here are some ways to ease stress, develop coping skills, and overcome anxiety.

Tips for adults coping with separation anxiety

Keep a journal. Writing down worries when they arise can help you work through the fears you're feeling. Keeping a journal can also help you identify triggers when these thoughts occur and think of ways to approach the separation period differently.

Practice breathing techniques. Breathing, meditation and anything else that helps you be mindful in the moment and ground you, in reality, can be powerful coping mechanisms for separation anxiety. Often, the fears and worries that surround separation anxiety are the "what ifs." Focusing on the now can help stop this pattern.

Incorporate exercise. Sticking to an exercise routine can help alleviate stress, benefit sleep patterns and get your mind away from worrying about being separated from a loved one. 

Helping Your Child Help Themselves

Don't criticize your child. Separation anxiety can be hard on parents but telling your child not to be a baby or that they're overreacting won't help quell fears and will may make things worse.

Comfort and reassure your child. Start with small separations where you leave your child with another caretaker while you're still home. Let them know you won't be far away and that they're safe where they are. 

RELATED: The Socratic Method: What It Is and How to Use It in Your Everyday Life

Provide positive reinforcement. When your child does spend time away from you, even if for brief moments, praise them for being brave and spending time on their own. 

Tips for School

Do a trial run. If you know your child suffers from separation anxiety, take them to their new school or daycare before actually leaving them there so that they can get familiar with the new environment. See if it can be arranged to briefly meet teachers and caretakers ahead of leaving them there for the first time.

Leave your child with something familiar. Allowing your child to take a toy, stuffed animal or blanket with them from home gives them something familiar and provides a sense of comfort. 

Make goodbyes brief. This can be easier said than done, but the less of a big deal you make about leaving your child, the less of a big deal it will seem to them. If you get emotional about leaving your child, that will simply reinforce their own stress and anxiety about it.

Diagnosis And Treatment For Separation Anxiety

loving father daughter
(Photo by Caroline Hernandez on Unsplash)

There are many questions that come to mind when dealing with anxiety. How is Separation Anxiety Disorder diagnosed? How is Separation Anxiety Disorder treated? Can you prevent Separation Anxiety Disorder? Diagnosis and treatment for separation anxiety can differ for children and adults who may be experiencing symptoms. Here's what to know about separation anxiety diagnosis and treatment.

Diagnosis and Treatment for Separation Anxiety in Children

Separation anxiety in children can be diagnosed by a child psychiatrist or mental health professional, who will evaluate the child using the appropriate diagnostic criteria. In order to be considered for evaluation, symptoms need to persist consistently for at least four weeks. 

RELATED: Understanding the Importance of Occupational Wellness

If your child is diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, your mental health professional may involve the child's school in a treatment plan, recommend family therapy to help parents manage their child's disorder, enroll the child in cognitive behavioral therapy or in some cases, prescribe medication. 

Diagnosis and Treatment for Separation Anxiety in Adults

To be evaluated for separation anxiety as an adult, symptoms need to persist for at least six months. A medical provider will diagnose separation anxiety in adults according to the criteria for separation anxiety disorder in the DSM-V. This evaluation may include conversations between the medical provider and the patient's family members and friends in order to make a diagnosis and provide a treatment plan. 

Based on the evaluation, treatment for separation anxiety in adults may be partaking in group therapy with others who suffer from separation anxiety, family therapy if the person's disorder impacts other family members, cognitive behavioral therapy or in some cases, medications. 

When Should We Seek Professional Help for Separation Anxiety?

Parents and daughter at therapy looking at her drawing by Gustavo Fring on Pexels
Photo by Gustavo Fring on Pexels

If symptoms of separation anxiety are keeping you or your child from living a full, happy life, and getting in the way of your day-to-day activities, it's a good idea to consult with a professional who can help. Separation anxiety can be hard to live with and manage at any stage of life – but it's important to know that help is available. Things will get better!


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