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Separation anxiety disorder

Medically reviewed by Drugs.com. Last updated on Mar 27, 2023.

Overview

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for infants and toddlers. Young children often experience a period of separation anxiety, but most children outgrow separation anxiety by about 3 years of age.

In some children, separation anxiety is a sign of a more serious condition known as separation anxiety disorder, starting as early as preschool age.

If your child's separation anxiety seems intense or prolonged — especially if it interferes with school or other daily activities or includes panic attacks or other problems — he or she may have separation anxiety disorder. Most frequently this relates to the child's anxiety about his or her parents, but it could relate to another close caregiver.

Less often, separation anxiety disorder can also occur in teenagers and adults, causing significant problems leaving home or going to work. But treatment can help.

Symptoms

Separation anxiety disorder is diagnosed when symptoms are excessive for the developmental age and cause significant distress in daily functioning. Symptoms may include:

Separation anxiety disorder may be associated with panic disorder and panic attacks — repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes.

When to see a doctor

Separation anxiety disorder usually won't go away without treatment and can lead to panic disorder and other anxiety disorders into adulthood.

If you have concerns about your child's separation anxiety, talk to your child's pediatrician or other health care provider.

Causes

Sometimes, separation anxiety disorder can be triggered by life stress that results in separation from a loved one. Genetics may also play a role in developing the disorder.

Risk factors

Separation anxiety disorder most often begins in childhood, but may continue into the teenage years and sometimes into adulthood.

Risk factors may include:

Complications

Separation anxiety disorder causes major distress and problems functioning in social situations or at work or school.

Disorders that can accompany separation anxiety disorder include:

Prevention

There's no sure way to prevent separation anxiety disorder in your child, but these recommendations may help.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder involves determining whether your child is going through a normal stage of development or the issue is actually a disorder. After ruling out any medical conditions, your child's pediatrician may refer you to a child psychologist or child psychiatrist with expertise in anxiety disorders.

To help diagnose separation anxiety disorder, your mental health professional will likely give your child a psychological evaluation, including a structured interview that involves discussing thoughts and feelings, as well as observing behavior. Separation anxiety disorder may occur along with other mental health problems.

Treatment

Separation anxiety disorder is usually treated with psychotherapy, sometimes along with medication. Psychotherapy, sometimes called talk therapy or psychological counseling, involves working with a therapist to reduce separation anxiety symptoms.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective form of psychotherapy for separation anxiety disorder. During therapy your child can learn how to face and manage fears about separation and uncertainty. In addition, parents can learn how to effectively provide emotional support and encourage age appropriate independence.

Sometimes, combining medication with CBT may be helpful if symptoms are severe. Antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be an option for older children and adults.

Lifestyle and home remedies

While separation anxiety disorder benefits from professional treatment, you can also take these steps to help ease your child's separation anxiety:

Coping and support

Coping with a child who has separation anxiety disorder can be frustrating and cause conflict with family members or cause a great deal of worry and anxiety for parents.

Ask your child's therapist for advice on coping and support. For example, the therapist may advise you to:

It's also important to develop and maintain supportive relationships for yourself, so you can better help your child.

Preparing for an appointment

You may start by seeing your child's pediatrician. He or she may refer you to a mental health professional with expertise in anxiety disorders.

What you can do

Before your appointment, make a list of:

Questions to ask may include:

Don't hesitate to ask other questions during the appointment.

What to expect from your doctor

The mental health professional is likely to ask you a number of questions. For example:

Preparing and anticipating questions will help you make the most of your time with the mental health professional.

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