Separation anxiety disorder is characterized by having intense distress when separated from their caregiver or loved one, even if only for a brief amount of time. This condition is typically seen in children, but may also be experienced by adults as well. Though it is very normal for young children to experience separation anxiety, they will typically grow out of this behavior as they get older.

If your child is showing signs of intense, irrational dread when they are separated from you even for short periods of time, then they may have or be at risk for developing separation anxiety disorder.

However, a proper psychiatric evaluation by a psychiatrist or a psychologist will better reveal whether or not this is so.

It is also important to note that if your child merely experiences slight anxiety or occasional loneliness when both of you are separated, this is not necessarily intimation of them having this condition as to be diagnosed with it they must be experiencing it for a significant amount of time and it must greatly hinder their day to day life. A mere instance or two of separation anxiety is not this.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder

A child suffering from separation anxiety disorder will experience a great deal of anxiety when merely thinking of being separated from their parents or caregivers, let alone actually being separated from them. In some extreme cases, they may even have panic attacks as a result of their separation anxiety.

Below, you will see some more common symptoms of separation anxiety disorder:

  • Intense anxiety when separated from their caregiver or a loved one
  • Being overly concerned with being separated
  • Being afraid to leave home due to the risk of separation
  • Fearful of being home alone or sleeping alone
  • Thinking the worst will happen if they become separated
  • Excessively fearful of losing a loved one due to an illness or a disaster

Causes of Separation Anxiety Disorder

There is no definitive cause of separation anxiety disorder. However, genetics and one’s environment are likely to play very significant roles. For instance, a child who grew up in a household where they were frequently separated from their parents or who never got the reassurance from them that there is nothing to fear by being separated may have a higher risk for developing separation anxiety disorder.

Another possible cause for someone to develop this condition could be that perhaps they experienced a very traumatic event that changed the way they look at separation. For instance, a child who was kidnapped or abused by a stranger when separated by their caregivers may be more than enough for them to develop full blown separation anxiety disorder.

Besides a child experiencing a traumatic event, it is also very likely that genetics will play a very key role in them developing this condition also. For instance, if the child has a family history of mental illness, especially of anxiety disorders, then they may be at risk for developing it. This would likely be due to them then having a genetic predisposition to developing mental illness.

Though we do not definitively know what causes all mental disorders to develop, there is an overwhelming consensus among most mental health professionals that both genetics and environmental factors play very significant roles in the development of virtually any given mental illness. So, taking a closer look at these parameters may give you a better indication of whether or not you or your child are at risk for developing separation anxiety disorder.

Diagnosis according to the DSM-5

To be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, you must display at least 3 of the following criteria:

  • Persistent and excessive fear of or reluctance about being alone or without major attachment figures at home or in other settings
  • Recurrent excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or from major attachment figures
  • Persistent and excessive worry about losing major attachment figures or about possible harm to them, such as illness, injury, disasters, or death
  • Persistent reluctance or refusal to go out, away from home, to school, to work, or elsewhere because of fear of separation
  • Persistent reluctance or refusal to sleep away from home or to go to sleep without being near a major attachment figure
  • Repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation
  • Repeated complaints of physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, nausea, vomiting) when separation from major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated
  • Persistent and excessive worry about experiencing an untoward event (e.g., getting lost, being kidnapped, having an accident, becoming ill) that causes separation from a major attachment figure

Separation Anxiety Disorder Treatment

For someone suffering with this condition, there are several different types of treatments available for them. For instance, individual psychotherapy (talk therapy), family therapy, exposure therapy, as well as some medications may be able to help reduce the intensity of the symptoms associated with this disorder.

Talk therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may be very effective at helping a child with their separation anxiety disorder to better understand the faults in their thinking, as well as learning much more effective ways to cope with their fears, among other things. CBT is a very common form of therapy for people suffering from anxiety disorders and is also often used to treat generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), among others.

Depending on the age of the individual, as well as the severity of their symptoms of separation anxiety disorder, they may be able to greatly benefit from taking an anti-anxiety medication or an antidepressant. These medications are commonly prescribed for individuals suffering from anxiety disorders and mood disorders, and they may also be able to help relieve some of the symptoms associated with separation anxiety as well. Though, this is something you should first discuss with your doctor.

If you suspect that you or your child is suffering from separation anxiety disorder, then you should talk to your doctor as soon as you can so that you or your child can be properly diagnosed and treated. Upon seeing your doctor, she may refer you to see a specialist such as a psychologist or a psychiatrist for further treatment.