Separation Anxiety Disorder: Its Causes and Treatment

June 13, 2017
Remember: only a specialist can diagnose your child with this disorder or any other. Stay informed, and see a specialist if you think your child may suffer from separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety disorder is very common in child development. Separation anxiety is a usual phase in very young children. The problem arises when they do not outgrow it. Today, we’ll take a look at this condition. We’ll also talk about its symptoms.

What is anxiety? Simply put, it’s fear, worry and nervousness. In other words, anxiety is a feeling no human being escapes. It’s not always something bad, though. For example, it keeps us from harm because it acts as a warning sign.

Separation anxiety usually occurs in babies from 8 to 12 months old. It commonly ends when they’re around 24 months. At this age, toddlers begin to understand their parents may be away for a while but will be back later.

However, some kids don’t outgrow this anxiety. They may continue to experience it even as teens.

What Symptoms Should You Pay Attention to?

Separation anxiety disorder usually suggests general mood and mental health problems.

The symptoms of this condition occur when kids are separated from their parents or caretakers. Their fear of being separated triggers it.

Children who suffer from this condition feel unsafe. Parents should pay attention to the symptoms below:

  • Holding on to their parents.
  • Worry about harm coming to their parents.
  • Severe and excessive crying.
  • Refusing to do things that involve moving away from their parents.
  • Physical illness, such as headaches or vomiting.
  • Violent behavior and tantrums.
  • Fear of unknown people and places.
  • Refusal to go to school.
  • Bad grades.
  • Not relating with kids in a healthy way.
  • Refusal to sleep alone.
  • Constant nightmares.
  • Bed wetting.

We recommend reading: Child Abuse Impacts Children’s Development

Risk Factors That Could Lead to Separation Anxiety Disorder

beautiful baby

Overall, children with the characteristics below are more likely to develop this disorder:

  • A family history of depression or anxiety.
  • Being shy.
  • Coming from a low-income family.
  • “Helicopter” parents.
  • Lack of proper interaction with parents.
  • Relational problems with kids of the same age.

This condition can also occur after stressors in a child’s life such as:

  • Move to a new home.
  • Change of schools.
  • Parents’divorce.
  • A loved one’s death.
  • A pet’s death.
  • A stay in the hospital.

This disorder in children may also be a reflection of their parents’ anxiety at leaving.

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How Is Separation Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?

If your kid shows three or more of the symptoms we described, then he/she may have this disorder. However, you should consult a doctor. This professional will want to rule out any physical condition before referring your kid to a specialist.

If the specialist diagnoses your child with this condition, he/she will guide you through the process of helping your child. Accordingly, this professional will decide what therapy is the best for your kid. This specialist will likely talk you about two methods to deal with the situation:

1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Through this, children get to:

  • Understand why they feel anxious.
  • Identify what makes them feel that way.
  • Learn how to face their fears.

This therapy includes techniques such as deep breathing and relaxation.

Parents, for their part, acquire skills in dealing with their kid’s fears successfully. They further gain knowledge of how to reinforce positive behaviors in their child.

2. Parent-Child Interaction Therapy

This is another way to treat separation anxiety disorder. For parents, this involves two phases:

  • Children-Directed Interaction

The focus is to improve the parent-child relationship. It’s about warmth, attention and praise. It’s also about love and affection. This stage allows you to help your child feel calm and secure.

  • Parent-Directed Interaction

The aim of this stage is to teach parents to communicate clearly with their child. This mainly helps them learn to control their child’s misbehavior. Therefore, in this phase, parents acquire skills to help kids accept limits and respect house rules.

School Factors

In addition, you should keep in mind your child’s school. After all, your child needs a safe place to go when feeling anxious.

Besides, there must be a way for your child to be able to reach you even while at school. The same applies to other occasions away from home.

Finally, your child’s teacher should encourage him/her to relate with classmates.

Overall, there is no specific drug for this condition. Older kids with this disorder are often prescribed drugs. However, specialists should supervise this aspect at all times. This is because of their side effects.

Does Separation Anxiety Disorder Affect the Family Environment?

baby not suffering from separation anxiety disorder

This disorder also affects emotional growth. Additionally, it impacts social development. Furthermore, it can lead kids to avoid key experiences for them to mature normally.

In fact, this disorder can affect family life in several ways:

  • First of all, it can influence family activities limited by negative behaviors.
  • In addition, parents with little time for themselves or each other may become frustrated with the child.
  • Moreover, the siblings of children with this disorder can become jealous. The reason for this is all the attention they receive.

Remember that you should always work with the specialists to solve the problem correctly. This is because this condition requires special care. Therefore, please do not decide to treat it on your own.

Instead, follow the advice of trained experts. For this reason, use this information only as a guide.

If your child is in therapy for this disorder, then stick with the treatment plan. This way, you’ll help your child move forward.

Only a specialist can diagnose your child with this disorder or any other.

  • Bowlby, J. (1973). Attachment and Loss: Separation, Anxiety and AngerBasic Books(Vol. 2, pp. 1–325). Basic Books. https://doi.org/10.1080/00098655.2015.1074878
  • Echeburúa, E.(1996). Trastornos de ansiedad en la infancia.Madrid. Ediciones Pirámide.
  •  Adult Separation Anxiety Often Overlooked Diagnosis – Arehart-Treichel 41 (13): 30 – Psychiatr News