What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation Anxiety occurs when a child feels the threat of separation from their caretaker or anticipates the separation coming. Separation anxiety is common between the ages of 18 months and 3 years old. When older children or adults show developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety about leaving home or being away from loved ones, and when this anxiety interferes with daily life, this may indicate the presence of separation anxiety disorder. Children with separation anxiety resist any form of “goodbye” such as going to bed, school, or daycare. They often have extreme difficulty being away from home or attachment figures and they try to avoid these separation situations. In children, these fears must last for a period of one month or longer. Separation Anxiety affects approximately 4% of children.
Children may cry or throw a tantrum and beg to stay with their caretaker, others may refuse to go to these things overall. Children with a more severe form of separation anxiety may demand to be within reach of their caretakers.
Common Symptoms Include:
- Difficulty going to bed on their own
- Difficulty going to school, daycare or friends’ homes
- Having a sleepover
- Being at camp
- Fear that something bad will happen to themselves (e.g., getting kidnapped) or to a loved one (e.g., never coming back, getting sick or dying) when away from them
- Calling or texting parent figure or caregiver excessively
- Complaints of physical symptoms (e.g., headache, stomach ache)
- Tantrums when separation is about to happen
Treating this disorder involves exposure therapy that increasingly teaches a child that they can enjoy or endure separations. Another form of exposure therapy is imaginal exposure that helps children overcome thoughts about separation. The therapist will also teach caregivers to know how to help their child endure separation and how to use consequences (e.g., rewards and limit setting) in healthy ways.