Separation Anxiety Disorder: What It Is, Symptoms, Causes and More

It’s natural for your young child to feel anxious when they say goodbye, although it can be difficult, separation anxiety disorder is a normal developmental stage. With understanding and coping strategies, it may ease and disappear as your child grows older, but if anxiety intensifies or persists long enough to get in the way of school or other activities, your child may have a very advanced disorder, although this condition may require professional treatment, there are many things you as a parent can do to help ease your child’s fears and make them feel more secure.

What is separation anxiety disorder?

It is an anxiety disorder in which an individual experiences excessive anxiety regarding separation from home or from people to whom the individual has a strong emotional bond (for example, a father, mother, caregiver, partner or siblings), it is most common in infants and young children, usually between the ages of 6-7 months to 3 years, although it can manifest pathologically in older children, adolescents, and adults.

Children with this disorder tend to come from families that are very close, when they are separated from their home or from the main attachment figures, they can repeatedly exhibit social withdrawal, apathy, sadness or difficulty concentrating on work or daily activities.

Depending on their age, people may fear animals, monsters, the dark, muggers, thieves, kidnappers, car accidents, air travel and other situations that are perceived as a danger to the integrity of the family or themselves. Worries about death are common, they may complain that no one loves or cares for them and that they wish they were dead, when they are extremely upset at the prospect of separation, they may show anger or occasionally hit or attack someone who is forcing separation.

When alone, especially at night, young children can report unusual perceptual experiences (for example, seeing people peering into their room, terrifying creatures approaching them, eyes staring at them).

Depressed mood is common and may become more persistent over time, warranting an additional diagnosis of dysthymic disorder or major depressive disorder  and may precede the development of panic disorder with agoraphobia .

Separation anxiety disorder

Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder


Note: Very young children may be unable to identify specific fearful thoughts):

  • What if something bad happens to mom or dad?
  • What if I get lost?
  • What if Grandma doesn’t pick me up after school?
  • What happens if I am kidnapped?
  • What if I get sick and Mom is not there to help me?

Physical symptoms

  • Stomach aches.
  • Dizziness.
  • Accelerated heart.
  • General aches.
  • Headaches.
  • Short of breath.
  • Sickness
  • Vomiting
  • Frequent urination due to general nervousness.
  • Muscle tension.
  • Disturbed sleep
  • High blood pressure

Emotional symptoms

  • Anxiety, worry and fear. (Required item)
  • Shame. (Required item)
  • Impotence. (Required item)
  • Sadness. (Required item)
  • Anger.

Behavioral symptoms

  • School refusal.
  • Avoid participating in new activities.
  • Refusing to sleep alone.
  • Nightmares . (Required item)
  • Asking a parent to be present or available
  • Crying. (Required item)
  • You cannot be alone in a room.
  • Refusing to leave the house.
  • Social isolation. (Required item)
  • Impairment of memory . (Required item)
  • Compulsions (Required item)
  • Difficulty making decisions.
  • Lack of concentration.
  • Inability to focus on tasks.

Causes of separation anxiety disorder

It happens because a child is feeling insecure in some way, take a look at everything that may have thrown your child’s world out of balance, made them feel threatened, or disrupted their normal routine. If you can identify the root cause, or causes, you will be one step closer to helping your child in their struggles.

Common causes in children include:

Change in environment: Changes in the environment, such as a new home, school, or daycare, can trigger separation anxiety disorder.

Stress. Stressful situations like changing schools, divorce, or the loss of a loved one, including a pet, can trigger separation anxiety problems.

An overprotective father. In some cases, it may be the manifestation of your own stress or anxiety. Parents and children can feed off each other’s anxieties.

Insecure attachment The attachment bond is the emotional connection formed between a baby and its primary caregiver. While an attachment bond ensures that your child will feel safe, understood, and calm enough for optimal development, an insecure attachment bond can contribute to childhood problems like separation anxiety.

How is separation anxiety disorder diagnosed?

Health professionals who are trained and experienced in understanding symptoms in children and adolescents are often the most qualified to evaluate separation anxiety disorder. The evaluation usually involves a pediatrician and a child psychologist, child psychiatrist, or other mental health professional who interviews both the child and his parents when evaluating him.

Those interviews are often conducted separately to allow everyone to speak freely, this is particularly important given the different way children and their parents may view the situation and how difficult it can be for children to listen to their discussed issues. In addition to asking about specific anxiety symptoms, the provider will likely explore the child for symptoms of other mental health problems and recommend that they receive a complete physical exam and lab work to make sure there is no medical reason for the problems. you are experiencing.

How is separation anxiety disorder treated?

Therapy and medication are used to treat it, both treatment methods can help a child manage anxiety in a positive way.


The most effective therapy is cognitive behavioral therapy where children are taught coping techniques for anxiety. Common techniques are deep breathing and relaxation

Parent-child interaction therapy is another way to treat it, it has three main treatment phases:

  • Child-directed interaction , focuses on improving the quality of the parent-child relationship, involves warmth, attention, and praise. These help strengthen a child’s sense of security.
  • The value-driven interaction educates parents on why their child is feeling anxiety. The therapist will develop a ladder of courage, where he shows situations that cause feelings of anxiety.
  • Parent-led interaction  teaches parents to communicate clearly with their children and helps control misbehavior.

The school environment is another key to successful treatment, your child needs a safe place to go when they feel anxious, there should also be a way for them to contact you if necessary during school hours or at other times when they are away from school. your home. Finally, your child’s teacher should encourage interaction with other classmates, if you have concerns about your child’s classroom, talk to the teacher, principles, or a guidance counselor.


There are no specific medications for this disorder, antidepressants are sometimes used in older children with this condition if other forms of treatment are ineffective. This is a decision that should be carefully considered by the child’s parent or guardian and the doctor, children should be carefully monitored for side effects.

Effects it causes on family life

Emotional and social development are seriously affected, the condition can cause a child to avoid experiences crucial to normal development, it can affect family life. Some of these problems can include:

  • Family activities that are limited by negative behavior.
  • Parents with little or no time for themselves or each other, resulting in frustration.
  • Siblings who become jealous of the extra attention given to the child with separation anxiety disorder.

Tips to Help Your Child Relieve His Own Stress

Children with anxious or stressed parents may be more prone to separation anxiety, to help your child alleviate their symptoms, you may need to take steps to be more calm and focused.

  • Talk about your feelings . Expressing what you are going through can be very cathartic, even if there is nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation.
  • Get regular exercise. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress.
  • Eat well. A well-nourished body is better prepared to deal with stress, so eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and healthy fats, and try to avoid junk food, sugary snacks, and refined carbohydrates.
  • Practice relaxation. You can control your stress levels with relaxation techniques like yoga, deep breathing, or meditation.
  • Get enough sleep. Feeling tired only increases your stress, causing you to think irrationally or groggy, while getting a good night’s sleep directly improves your mood and the quality of your waking life.
  • Keep your sense of humor. In addition to increasing your point of view, the act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.

Coexisting disorders

When an adult suffers from separation anxiety disorder, it is common for that individual to also suffer from another mental health condition. The following psychiatric disorders are known to occur in conjunction with this form of anxiety:

Georgia Tarrant
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Hello, how are you? My name is Georgia Tarrant, and I am a clinical psychologist. In everyday life, professional obligations seem to predominate over our personal life. It's as if work takes up more and more of the time we'd love to devote to our love life, our family, or even a moment of leisure.