Separation Anxiety

What is Separation Anxiety?

There are two types of separation anxiety. General separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage that children go through. It is a condition in which children, often babies and toddlers, who may have once had no reaction to a parent or caregiver leaving them alone or with someone else. However, when a child develops separation anxiety, they will start to be very upset at the prospect of their parent leaving them or being outside of their comfortable home environment.

When a child is between around the ages of 8 months old to about 14 to 24 months, they will go through the separation anxiety phase of development. This means that new places or environments, new people, and being “separated” from the home and their parents will cause them to get upset.

On the other hand, there is also a condition known as separation anxiety disorder. This occurs when a child has extreme reactions to new situations or to being separated from their home environment and/or parents. Separation anxiety disorder generally occurs beyond infancy and toddlerhood and can cause both physical and emotional symptoms.

What are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety?

There are numerous symptoms of separation anxiety. For young babies and toddlers, separation anxiety may be characterized by acting fussy or crying. Some children also yell, scream, or throw tantrums.

However, when a child suffers from separation anxiety disorder, they may also suffer from prolonged tantrums or crying spells.  A child may also worry excessively or irrationally about their parents or home when separated from them. Bedwetting, nightmares, and insomnia may also occur. In older children, their fears or worries that something bad will happen every time they are separated from their parents or home can interfere with normal social relationships and schoolwork. Stomachaches, headaches, nausea, and other physical symptoms can also occur.

Separation Anxiety Causes

Separation anxiety is caused by a number of different factors. In children, it can be caused by a new sibling, stress in the family, a new childcare situation, or a new home. Since children have very little sense of time and they aren’t able to remember a lot of their memories, they aren’t sure when, or if, you’ll come back, which causes them anxiety. Even if you step out of the room for just a moment, your child may experience anxiety over your disappearance.

Separation anxiety in adults can be caused by a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you have a family history of separation anxiety, you’re more likely to have it. Children who were born to mothers who experienced a lot of stress during pregnancy might also be at risk of separation anxiety.

How is Separation Anxiety Treated?

Normal or developmental separation anxiety does not require treatment. It usually resolves itself. Parents can help children who feel this separation anxiety by following through on promises, reacting calmly when children get upset, and by creating a supportive and safe environment for them. Separation anxiety disorder may require further treatment, though. Treatment for separation anxiety disorder may include anti-anxiety medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy or counseling, family therapy, changes in parenting technique, and other psychotherapy.

Separation Anxiety Prevention

You can prevent separation anxiety by keeping your goodbyes short and sweet, practicing goodbyes, and leaving a reminder. By keeping your goodbyes shorter when leaving your child with a caregiver, you can help to prevent an anxiety attack. Usually, distracting the child with a toy or activity will help them avoid separation anxiety. Practicing your goodbyes with your child can also help ease his or her separation anxiety. You can do this by leaving your child with a family member or friend for a short period of time and then coming back to get them. Soon enough, they’ll begin to learn that you’re going to come back when you leave. Leaving a reminder, such as a favorite toy, blanket or stuffed animal can help to ease the pain of separation for your child.

You might also consider leaving at times when your child is in a relaxed state. Make sure they’re fed and well rested before your departure if possible.

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Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
November 07, 2017