Separation Anxiety Disorder

GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety disorder is a common disorder. It affects children between ages of 3 and 17. It is a condition that causes children to feel anxiety when separated from their parents.

For children and babies younger than 3 years old, separation anxiety is a normal part of development. Children older than three years old should not feel distressed when separated from their parents. If significant anxiety continues after 3 years of age, it is considered a disorder.

In toddlers younger than 3 years old, a mild to moderate amount of separation anxiety is natural. If the child does not grow out of the separation anxiety they may suffer from separation anxiety disorder. They may also suffer from separation anxiety disorder if separation anxiety resurfaces later on.

Separation anxiety makes normal life phases distressing for a child. Such life phases include:

  • Preschool or kindergarten
  • Overnights at grandma’s house
  • Sleepovers
  • Daycare
  • Playdates

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety disorder occurs when a child struggles to cope with being separated from their parents. The condition can carry through adolescence and into adulthood.

The first step of treating separation anxiety disorder is to understand the symptoms. Symptoms will be present in children over 3 years old. Affected children will suffer from anxiety even at the thought of being separated from their parents.

Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:

  • Panic attacks when left in a place without their parents (preschool, daycare, etc.)
  • Refusal to attend playdates or sleepovers without their parent present
  • An intense fear of being away from parents
  • Visible distress when anticipating being separated from parents
  • Intense fears of losing a parent to death or accidents
  • An intense fear of being kidnapped or taken away from parents
  • Fear of being left at home without parents
  • Nightmares, night terrors or upsetting fantasies about being separated from or losing parents
  • Physical symptoms of stress when separated from parents (headaches, stomachaches, etc.)

Causes of Separation Anxiety Disorder

There are several factors that may cause a child to suffer from separation anxiety disorder. Finding the central cause for the separation anxiety disorder can aid in therapy.

Sometimes separation anxiety disorder stems from a single cause or event. Sometimes it occurs as a result of a number of circumstances.

Factors that may cause a child to suffer from separation anxiety disorder include:

Grief or Illness in family. The illness and/or passing of a loved one can be very stressful on a child. Children do not fully understand what it means to have someone die. They also may struggle with understanding what it means to be ill.

The concept of never again seeing someone who they used to see all the time is confusing and overwhelming for a child. This most often occurs when there is a primary member of the family involved. Primary family members can include pets, siblings and parents.

Genes and Family History. A major factor that may cause separation anxiety disorder in a child is having a genetic predisposition to suffer from anxiety. This means a child is at higher risk if one of their parents suffers from a type of anxiety disorder as well.

Major changes and life events. Big changes during childhood can cause affected people to suffer from separation anxiety. Changes can include:

  • Parents divorcing
  • Moving
  • Separation from parents
  • Spending time away from home due to stressful circumstances
  • Stress resulting from natural disasters
  • History of trauma or abuse

Treatment of Separation Anxiety Disorder

It is important to seek treatment if you believe your child is suffering from separation anxiety disorder. If left untreated, the condition can persist into adulthood.

It can also contribute to the onset of other mental health disorders, like:

Common forms of treatment that are effective in treating separation anxiety disorder include:

Talk therapy (Psychotherapy). Talk therapy can be effective in treating separation anxiety. It helps to pinpoint the source of the fear of separation from parents. Once the fear is identified, the affected person learns healthy coping strategies for their anxiety.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). By using CBT, the affected person learns how to cope with stressors in a healthy way. They learn how to face their fears separation by using their skills to cope with symptoms.

CBT can also be helpful in teaching parents how to support their child’s condition. It teaches parents how to support their child without enabling their anxious behavior.

Family Therapy. Family therapy is critical in treating a child with separation anxiety disorder. Family therapy educates parents and family members about the condition. It also teaches how to be supportive of the child without enabling their fears.

Through family therapy, parents and caretakers learn how to encourage a child’s independence. They learn how to stop enabling behaviors that can be detrimental to the child’s recovery.

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