Separation Anxiety

What is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Separation Anxiety Disorder is the recurrent and excessive distress of anticipating or being absent from home and/or loved ones and is the most common anxiety disorder in children under 12. If not addressed it can continue to manifest leading to more severe symptoms. Separation anxiety disorder is not to be confused with separation and fear of strangers anxiety which is a normal developmental stage in babies starting around the age of 6 – 8 months old.  Most infants outgrow this as they get older and understand that a parent or carer’s absence is only temporary. 

How does it start?

There are often situations throughout childhood which require a parent and child to be temporarily parted, this can of course, cause some distress as our parents or caregivers play a significant role in providing us with stability, reassurance and safety. Experiencing anxiety, in context like this, is normal and part of growing up. However, the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder are much more severe. The first event that may trigger separation anxiety disorder is when a child is introduced to a playgroup or school. Others may include:

  • The loss of a loved one or pet. Fearing they may lose a parent.
  • Parents separating. Distress at wanting to be with both parents or feeling responsibility or protectiveness towards one. 
  • A sudden change of circumstances such as moving home or moving school.
  • Seeing a parent struggling with issues relating to physical or mental health. 
  • When a child is in a new environment/situation, such as feeling overwhelmed at a friend’s birthday party and worried their parent will not return to collect them.
  • After an absence from school such as holidays or an extended illness.
  • Exposure to viral news or stories about kidnapping/abduction. Fearing they may also be in danger.

Such events as the examples listed above can be traumatic to a child or teenager, causing them great distress and uncertainty. Without a full explanation as to what is occurring or why it is happening, the youngster can be left with an extreme fear or anxiety about being away from parents or caregivers. In some cases, separation anxiety can alleviate as the child gets older. However in other cases, it can become prolonged and start to affect their lives with symptoms such as:

Symptoms and Behaviour (Children)
  • Refusing to sleep alone
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Constant worry something bad will happen
  • Not wanting to go away from home
  • Constantly seeking reassurance
  • Refusal to stay with trusted family or friends if a parent is not present
  • Physical symptoms such as sickness/headaches when away from loved ones
  • Refusing to go to school
Symptoms and Behaviour (Adults)
  • Excessive worry about the well-being of loved ones when they are not present
  • Frequently contacting loved ones to check they are ok. Needing reassurance
  • Physical symptoms of anxiety and panic (panic attacks)
  • Persistent fear something bad may happen
  • Recurring distress when separation from home or family occurs or is anticipated

Separation anxiety can also be a learned behaviour. It’s no secret that children learn by copying their parents. There is no exception for fear. Separation anxiety in adulthood can sometimes be associated with other anxiety disorders such as OCD, Agoraphobia and General Anxiety Disorder.

Overcoming Separation Anxiety Disorder

The great news is that separation anxiety disorder can be completely overcome. In order to do this, it is important to identify the cause and challenge the belief that has been created. Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Write a timeline. When you find the origin, see it for what it was and not how it felt at the time. Having an understanding of what exactly happened is key to changing your perspective of it.
  • Consider the evidence. How many times has something bad happened when you have been apart from a loved one. 
  • Be compassionate with yourself and understand that you experienced a traumatic event as a child and that you can now acknowledge that the same event is highly unlikely to happen again.
  • Keep a diary and note down anything that eases the anxiety. This is useful to look back on in times of need.

Helping your child with separation anxiety

  • Children respond well to honesty so by offering clear explanations in the most appropriate way and giving reassurance can help create a better understanding of situations.
  • Discuss plans for after the absence. Give them something to look forward to and focus on.
  • If you have to say goodbye, make it a positive moment, you don’t want them to pick up on any tension.
  • Help children understand why they feel the way they do. On occasions when you are apart, give them an unexpected call or send a message before they reach out to you to check you are ok.

Living with separation anxiety disorder can be extremely challenging, however, you are not alone. Here at Trauma Research UK, our belief is, ‘it’s not what’s wrong with you, it’s what happened to you’. With this philosophy, we believe that everyone can successfully overcome their mental health issues if given the right help and support. Read more…