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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.