How To Recognize And Navigate Separation Anxiety

Reviewed by Dawn Brown, LPC, NCC

Published 01/08/2021

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety happens when a child or adult feels fear after a loved one leaves their side. Children may become hysterical when a parent or guardian leaves the room, and adults could have panic attacks if they are left alone.

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While it can be terrifying, separation anxiety is a normal process for some people, especially young children. If you are concerned for a loved one with separation anxiety, then continue reading for help in recognizing and navigating your loved one’s separation anxiety.

What Causes Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety typically develops after a child gains knowledge of object permanence. They then understand that when their mom or dad leaves them, the child realizes that they are gone in that specific moment. As a result, they become distressed and exhibit various emotions to get their guardian’s attention.

Taking a test like this one is a good start in understanding if you or a loved one demonstrates behavior linked to separation anxiety. While an online diagnostic test does not replace an official diagnosis, it can help develop a better understanding of the symptoms associated with separation anxiety.

When Do Children Develop Separation Anxiety?

The timing of separation anxiety can vary since it can develop in four-month-olds to three-year-old children or even older. Here is a list that describes the stages when a child can have separation anxiety:

Infants:

  • They develop separation anxiety after learning object permanence, between 4 to 9 months of age. If you leave them when they are hungry, tired, or sick, their anxiety can worsen.

Toddlers:

  • There are children not having separation anxiety until they are one year old, specifically between 14 to 18 months of age. At this stage, toddlers are becoming more independent. Thus, when you leave their side, they are aware of the momentary separation, worsening their anxiety. This effect also worsens if your toddler feels hungry, tired, or ill. Their behaviors at separation may consist of crying and other loud noises, making it a challenge to calm them down.

Preschool-aged children:

  • While separation anxiety gradually disappears throughout early childhood, children ages 3 and over can still feel worried when away from a loved one. To combat this worry, be consistent with your child. Let them know when you are leaving their side. By building a trustworthy relationship with your child, they, in turn, will feel comfortable when you leave the room since they trust that you will come back.

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What Can Parents Do To Help Their Child With Separation Anxiety?

This is an important question since parents may feel guilty when they leave their children for any reason. Thus, trust is paramount in establishing a steadfast defense against a child’s separation anxiety.

There are multiple ways for parents to establish this trust. Here are a few tips that parents can follow when they need to leave their child:

  1. When In New Places
  • If you are leaving your child in a setting unfamiliar to them, such as a daycare or a grandparent’s home, then spend time with them at the new place before you leave.
      • For instance, if you are at their grandparents’ house, use the time to have your child become familiar with your parents. Then, leave the house either to get something or meet with a friend. Before leaving, tell your child where you are going, how long you’ll be out, and when you’ll see them next. By living up to these promises, your child may feel comfortable on their own in the new environment.
  • When your child goes to preschool, inform their teachers about his or her separation anxiety.
    • You can let them know how you help your child with separation anxiety. The teachers may emulate your methods and help your child succeed in an environment without your presence. Often, early childhood educators are aware of these issues, and they know how to handle them beneficially.
  1. When Leaving Your Child
  • Anytime that you have to leave your child, tell them your schedule. Build a healthy rapport with them, and do not break your promises.

Try to tell them when you will be back in terms that are understandable to them. For example, instead of saying, “I will be back by 3 o’clock,” try telling them, “I will be back after you have your lunch.”

  • When you are saying goodbye to them, make it brief and simple. If you linger, your child’s anxiety can build and linger.
    • Try making it an activity when you tell them goodbye. Come up with a quick ritual—a kiss on the forehead, giving them something special, embracing them—before leaving. Give them a loving impression that instills in your child confidence that you care for them and will return.
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    • Lastly, always smile even if you are feeling anxious or sad. If you leave them on a somber note, your child will pick up on the tension. Leaving them off with a smile and then returning for a happy reunion will show your child that you will always come back for them. It will also teach them a valuable lesson in being positive when you are feeling sad.
  1. Boosting Their Self-Esteem
  • Always remain patient with your child during their difficulty with separation anxiety. Avoid using negative language, and congratulate them on getting through their difficulties.
    • After they calm down, discuss plans with them. Make a playdate or grab a snack together. Show them that you are kind, understanding, and willing to work with them.
    • Let your child know that they are not the only ones dealing with separation anxiety. While it’s simple to tell them that there are other children with the same difficulty, you can also make them feel better with a story.
    • Make up a story in which a character is struggling with being away from their parents. Then have a happy ending where they overcome their struggles and understand the value of their relationship with the parent. Stories are great learning tools.
    • Ultimately, give your child as much attention as you can. If they have something they want to tell you, listen attentively, and provide a caring and heartwarming response. When they are feeling brave about being away from you, praise them. You have a real chance of boosting their self-esteem when they feel brave by being on their own.

As children become of age to attend preschool, their separation anxiety gradually disappears. However, some children may still retain the anxiety. Their separation anxiety can also resurface when they are adults. This is called separation anxiety disorder, and its effects are similar for both children and adults.

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What Are The Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)?

Separation disorders are rare in children and adults, with only 4% of school-aged children having the disorder. A review conducted by Clinical Psychology Review disclosed that SAD was long thought relegated only to infants and as such, separation anxiety in adults was not considered a possibility. There are a few separation anxiety disorder symptoms to keep in mind:

  • Panic symptoms, such as having panic attacks when a loved one leaves you or physical ailments like nausea
  • Explicit refusal of you leaving their side as a result of separation distress
  • Excessive worrying about something that will happen to a loved one
  • The physical pain associated with anxiety attacks, such as headaches

According to the Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, individuals can be diagnosed with a separation anxiety disorder if they exhibit the symptoms for at least six months. Make sure to always consult a medical professional if you believe that you or a loved one show signs of separation anxiety disorder.

What Are The Risk Factors?

There are multiple risk factors for separation anxiety disorder. These factors are personal events in an individual’s life that emotionally affects their state of mind. They include breaking up with a loved one, moving away from home, or other significant events.

Sometimes relationships with parents can influence an adult’s chances of getting SAD. For instance, if somebody grew up with overbearing adults, they may have a separation anxiety disorder regarding their loved ones.

Adults who are diagnosed with a separation anxiety disorder may also be diagnosed with other mental health conditions:

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Generalized anxiety disorder

Are There Any Treatment Options?

The options differ depending on the individual. If you are a concerned parent, then consider the following options:

  • Discuss your child’s SAD with their teacher or a school counselor. They can use their resources and point you towards somebody who can help your child.
  • Travel to your local children’s community center
  • Enlist the help of a licensed mental health professional

For adults, there are a few treatment plans that can help with overcoming SAD:

  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)

For all guidance regarding treatment, please consult a licensed medical professional.

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What’s The Outlook?

Separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder can be easily navigated so long as you know how to recognize them and what you can do to help your loved ones become braver when they are alone.

Talk to a medical professional if you believe that somebody is exhibiting these symptoms, and even after having that conversation, ensure that you will always be there for them.