Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is the fear or distress that can happen to both children and adults when they think about separating from home or from the people they've become attached to. 

Definition

Separation anxiety refers to excessive fear or anxiety about separation from home or an attachment figure. In previous versions of the DSM, separation anxiety was only applied to people under the age of 18. The diagnosis is now categorized as an anxiety disorder that can be present at all stages of life.

Separation anxiety is a normal stage in an infant's development. It helped keep our ancestors alive and helps children learn how to master their environment. It usually ends at around age 2, when toddlers begin to understand that a parent may be out of sight right now but will return later. The key feature of separation anxiety disorder, however, is when the anxiety exceeds what might be expected give a person's developmental level.

Children with separation anxiety disorder may cling to their parents excessively, refuse to go to sleep without being near a major attachment figure, be reluctant to attend camp or sleep at friends' homes, or require someone to be with them when they go to another room in their house. Children also commonly experience physical symptoms when separation is anticipated or occurs, such as headaches, nausea and vomiting. Adults with this disorder may be uncomfortable when traveling independently, experience nightmares about separating from attachment figures, or be overly concerned with their offspring or spouse and continuously check on their whereabouts. 

When separation does happen, children may seem withdrawn, sad, or have difficulty concentrating on work or play. Depending on the age of the person, they may have a fear of animals, monsters, the dark, burglars, kidnappers, plane travel, or other situations that are perceived as dangerous. Some people become severely homesick when separated from attachment figures, regardless of their age. The experience of separation anxiety disorder is often frustrating for family members and can lead to resentment and conflict in the family.

Separation anxiety disorder is the most prevalent anxiety disorder in children under the age of 12. In a given 12-month period in the U.S., the prevalence of separation anxiety disorder is estimated to be 0.9%-1.9% among adults, 1.6% among adolescents, and 4% among children. This condition is equally common for males and females. 

Symptoms

Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:

  • Excessive distress when separated from the home or attachment figures
  • Worry about losing or harm coming to major attachment figures
  • Excessive worry about experiencing an unexpected negative event (getting lost, becoming ill) that leads to separation from attachment figures
  • Refusal to leave home, school, work, or another place because of fear of separation
  • Persistent fear about being alone or without major attachment figures at home or other places. In children, this may look like "clinging" behavior, or staying close to the parent around the house. 
  • Refusal or reluctance to sleep away from home or to go to sleep without attachment figures nearby
  • Nightmares involving themes of separation from home or major attachment figures
  • Repeated physical complaints such as headaches and nausea when separation has occurred or is anticipated

For separation anxiety disorder to be considered, these symptoms must be present for at least four weeks in children and adolescents and six months or more in adults. Additionally, these symptoms must cause impairment of school, social, occupational or personal functioning as a result of the anxiety.

Causes

Separation anxiety from attachment figures is a normal part of early development, particularly in the first few years of life. The anxiety becomes problematic when it is excessive given the person's developmental level, and when it causes some form of dysfunction in the person's life. 

Though the cause of separation anxiety disorder is unknown, some risk factors have been identified. Separation anxiety disorder commonly develops after a person experiences a major stressor, such as a loss. This loss might be the death of a loved one or pet, a change of schools, divorce of the parents, or some sort of disaster that separates an individual from loved ones for a period of time. Additionally, having parents who are overprotective or intrusive might lead to separation anxiety disorder. 

While the precise role of the genetic factors involved in separation anxiety disorder has not been established, research has shown that this condition might be heritable.

Treatments

To resolve the feelings of separation anxiety, a child must develop an adequate sense of safety in their environment, as well as trust in people other than their parents, and trust in the parent's return. It is helpful for a parent to accompany the child during medical examinations or treatments whenever possible. When a parent is not available, prior exposure to the situation, such as visiting the doctor's office before a test, will be helpful for the child. Some hospitals provide Child Life specialists who explain procedures and medical conditions to children of all ages. If your child is particularly anxious and needs significant medical care, you may consider asking your health care provider about such services.

For older children and adults, effective treatments may include psychotherapy, changes in parenting techniques for adolescents (and for anxious adults with children), and anti-anxiety medications. Treatment for certain cases may involve family education and family therapy.

For younger children, there are courses of action a parent or caregiver can take:

  • Try to schedule departures after naps and mealtimes since your child will be more susceptible to separation anxiety when tired, hungry, or sick.
  • Prepare your child before the separation occurs by reassuring them that you will return. Treat the anxiety seriously and react with understanding, patience, and confidence: "I know you don't want me to go away right now, but I will be back after school." Do not tease: "You're so silly to cry about it." Do not sound annoyed: "You make me feel so mad when you cry like that!"
  • Stay calm, matter-of-fact and, sympathetic: "I know you are upset that I have to go into the kitchen, but I need to cook dinner." 
  • Create feelings of security for your toddler by giving lots of love and attention. Young children learn faster when they receive necessary attention and affection than by the parent's taking a "learn the hard way" attitude.
  • Practice short-term separations around the house. As you go into the next room out of sight, talk to your child: "Where did mommy go?" When you return, let her know: "Here I am!" These repeated separations might help your child learn that your disappearance is only temporary.
  • Do not sneak away from your child. While tempting, this approach will only lead to more difficulty the next time you leave.
  • Maintain control over your own anxieties. If your child senses or sees your distress at leaving, that will tell him that there must be something wrong.

References

  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Revised
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition
  • Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development
  • DSM-IV Made Easy: The Clinician's Guide to Diagnosis
  • National Institutes of Health - National Library of Medicine

Last reviewed 02/01/2017