Separation anxiety is a form of extreme distress that makes it intolerable for a young child to be away from a parent/caregiver during periods of planned (or expected) age-appropriate separation.

Overview and Facts

What is Separation Anxiety?

It’s when the distress associated with separation from a parent or caregiver interferes with a young child’s ability to experience or take part in age-appropriate behavior. Separation anxiety can be experienced by infants as well as school age children.


What are the symptoms of Separation Anxiety?

Symptoms include excessive and repeated distress about being away from a parent or caregiver and can include:

  • constant worry about losing a parent (due to illness, accident, natural disaster, etc.)
  • constant worry about being lost or kidnapped
  • extreme attachment to one or both parents
  • not wanting to be home alone or unaccompanied in a section of the house
  • ongoing nightmares about being lost or separated
  • physical complaints such as headaches or stomachaches in anticipation of expected separation (i.e., going to school)
  • panic attacks associated with separation.


What causes Separation Anxiety?

A tendency to experience separation anxiety may be inherited. However, it’s most often triggered by stress, trauma, or a significant change in a child’s environment—for example, attending a new school or moving to a new home or school. Significant life events such a death or divorce in the family can also trigger separation anxiety.


Don't all young children experience Separation Anxiety at some point?

Most young children experience symptoms of separation anxiety as a normal part of their development. However, separation anxiety disorder may be present when persistent, repeated episodes of distress over being separated from a parent or adult caregiver continue over a period of four weeks or more.


Do adults ever experience Separation Anxiety?

Some adults experience heightened worry and fear of being separated from their loved ones. The death of a close family member and other traumatic events that can result in loss or separation (for example, serious illness, divorce, extended military service) may trigger separation anxiety in adults.


How is Separation Anxiety treated?

Depending on a child’s age, treatments can range from family education and family therapy to counseling, helping parents learn new parenting techniques, and anti-anxiety medications.