Separation anxiety describes the uncomfortable symptoms experienced by a person or even an animal who is separated or fears being separated from a loved person or object. Separation anxiety is common and is indeed considered a phase in child development. About 200,000 cases a year are reported. It is usually not life threatening and can be managed. This article will focus on the causes, symptoms and treatments of separation anxiety.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
What is separation anxiety? Separation anxiety is the fear that a person feels when they even consider separating themselves from a loved one or a person or place to whom they have become attached. Previously, the DSM considered that only children could suffer from separation anxiety. As of 2018, it can be applied to people of all ages.
Psychologists consider the normal anxiety when a parent is out of sight of a child to be problematic if it does not go away by the time the child is three. By then, they reason, the child should understand that just because a parent is out of sight does not mean they will never return.
Symptoms and Signs of Separation Anxiety
These symptoms and signs are part of what is separation anxiety:
- Clinging excessively, literally or figuratively, to a parent or loved one.
- Inability to sleep without the loved one being nearby. Some children insist on sleeping with their parents.
- Reluctance to leave home.
- Needing someone to accompany them everywhere, even to another room in the house.
- Nightmares about separation from the loved one.
- Obsession with the whereabouts and safety of the loved one.
- Fears and phobias. Children may be afraid of the dark, monsters under the bed or in the closet, potential kidnappers or getting on a plane.
- Extreme homesickness.
- An unusual amount of text messages and cell phone calls to the loved one.
For a person to be diagnosed with separation anxiety, they need to have had these symptoms for at least four weeks if they are a child or teenager and for six months if they are an adult. The symptoms must also negatively impact the person’s ability to perform in school, work or other social settings.
Causes of Separation Anxiety
As stated, a period of separation anxiety experienced by babies is normal. It usually starts when the child is seven months old, is most intense between 10 and 18 months old and is gone by the time the child is three. However, doctors and psychologists do not know why it continues and becomes pathological in some people.
Some experts believe separation anxiety can be a person’s reaction to actually having lost a loved human, pet or situation. It is seen in children whose parents have divorced and those who have undergone a family move and have to start a new school. Separation anxiety is seen in children who have been hospitalized or have had a loved one hospitalized. People who’ve survived a disaster that even temporarily breaks up their family may suffer from separation anxiety. Children who have what are called “helicopter parents” who try to control every aspect of their lives may also suffer from separation anxiety.
Poor children seem to be at higher risk for separation anxiety as are children whose mothers were unduly stressed during their pregnancy. There is even some evidence that the tendency toward separation anxiety may be inherited.
Separation Anxiety Treatment
Most children leave their separation anxieties behind when they feel safe and secure in their world. They understand that just because their mother or father left the room or even the house that they will return. Children with separation anxiety must also learn to put their trust in people who are not their immediate family, such as teachers and doctors.
When it comes to answering “What is separation anxiety?” a child who needs to visit the doctor should ideally be accompanied by a parent. If possible, they should visit the doctor’s office before the operation or the test, and the doctor can describe the treatment to the child in words the child can understand. There are some hospitals who have specialists who are trained in easing children’s fears of medical procedures and hospital visits, even if the child does not particularly suffer from separation anxiety disorder.
Some tips that are helpful for easing separation anxiety in young children or even older children include:
- Scheduling trips when the child is awake and alert and when they are neither sick nor hungry.
- Not teasing the child for their anxiety.
- Not being angry at or punishing the child for their separation anxiety.
- Lavishing love and attention on the child.
- Games of peek-a-boo or jack-in-the-box. This lets the child know that absences are temporary.
- Not sneaking off and leaving the child.
A parent who is anxious also needs to control their anxiety, for the child will pick it up.
Psychotherapy is helpful for older children and adults who have separation anxiety. Family therapy can help the entire family deal with the problem of a member’s distress. Some parents may need to learn to parent a teenager in a way that is different than parenting a younger child, and other parents who find it hard to let their children out of their sight will need other ways to cope with their discomfort. In cases where behavioral therapy isn’t enough, drugs such as fluvoxamine and tricyclic antidepressants may be useful.
Though experts know most of the answer to the question “What is separation anxiety?” they still don’t quite know why it persists past a certain age. The good news is that it is amenable to treatment through therapies that allow the person, whether child or adult, to control their fears.