Separation anxiety is a normal stage in an infant's development, as it helps children understand relationships and master their environment. It usually ends around 2 years old, 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 given 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 they anticipate separation, such as headaches, nausea, and vomiting. Adults with the disorder may be uncomfortable traveling independently, experience nightmares about separating from attachment figures, or be overly concerned about their children 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When separation does happen, children may seem withdrawn, sad, or have difficulty concentrating on work or play.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 4 percent among children, 1.6 percent among adolescents, and 0.9 to 1.9 percent among adults, according to the DSM-5. This condition occurs equally in men and women.