Although most people associate separation anxiety with children, adults can also develop the disorder. The intense anxiety overwhelms a child or adult when they are separated from a person (or a pet) they are extremely close to.
Most people feel anxious when separated from close family members. For example, a child going off to college may leave the parents feeling anxious about their child’s wellbeing, or a toddler starting daycare may cry for days or weeks every morning when the parent leaves them.
Eventually, this worry subsides as people adjust to the change in their life. However, those with separation anxiety disorder have trouble accepting the transition to the point that the anxiety interferes with their daily routine.
Separation Anxiety in Children
Separation anxiety is a normal part of growing up. However, for children over the age of six years old who still show symptoms or the symptoms are progressively worse, treatment may be an answer.
Often, separation anxiety is brought on by a traumatic event or the separation from a close family member and the child. The family member could be a parent, grandparent, sibling, or caregiver. This person typically meets the needs of the child and is someone they can turn to for comfort.
The child has a strong attachment to the person and grows anxious about being away from them for too long. The child may be fearful that once out of each other’s sight that something bad may happen to either the family member or the child.
Other common separation anxiety symptoms include:
- The child expressing fear over what might happen once separated from the person.
- The child may throw temper tantrums or cry hysterically for long periods of time.
- The child may refuse to go to school or daycare to stay home with the caregiver.
- The child may develop physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches in anticipation of the separation.
- The child may exhibit fears about being alone or refuse to sleep in their own bed.
- The child may regress and begin wetting the bed or sucking their thumb.
Over-protective parents may also contribute to the development of separation anxiety. This is often seen with parents who are full-time caregivers for their children until the child begins school. Both the caregiver and the child feel anxious about the transition from stay-at-home to fulltime school. Unfortunately, this anxiety can be felt by both parent and child which only feeds into the separation anxiety disorder.
Preventing Separation Anxiety in a Child
If your child is still a baby or toddler, you can help prevent separation anxiety by starting with small steps. Perhaps try leaving the child with nursery workers at church for about an hour on Sundays. As your child adjusts, you can increase the time intervals.
You can also try this at home with a babysitter. You may want to consider leaving your child the first time for two hours, the next time for four hours and increase the time as your child adapts and learns that you will always come back home.
To make things easier on your child, choose a caregiver wisely. Find someone you trust and interview them thoroughly. It’s not rude to ask for references. If your child is starting daycare, ask about the turn-over rate. Preferably, you want to find a class with a teacher that your child can depend on to always be there (unless there is an emergency, of course).
Some children do better in unfamiliar places when they bring something from home. Does your child have a favorite stuffed animal, small blanket, or cup? Anything that can remind them of home may help to lessen their anxiety.
Establish a routine for when you drop your child off and when you pick them up again. Children thrive on routines. You can wave good-bye from the door or give them a hug before leaving. When you return, try spending a few minutes asking them about their day and giving them a welcoming hug – even if you have only been gone an hour. Let them know you are happy to see them. This will reinforce the belief that you will come back.
Treatment for Children
Typically, separation anxiety resolves itself over a period of weeks or months. However, if your child is older and is still exhibiting the symptoms, speak to your pediatrician. The doctor will rule out any physical ailments that could be affecting your child. For example, if your child complains of stomachaches and refuses to attend school, the physician will run gastroenterology tests to confirm that there is not an underlying physical illness.
The pediatrician may prescribe anti-anxiety medication to your child and/or refer you to a professional therapist who specializes in treating children. The most common treatment for separation anxiety in children is talk therapy. The therapist will work with your child to reinforce your child’s security and reduce their fears.
The facilitator may introduce the child to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which can assist your child in identifying their fears and then reframing their thoughts and changing their behavior. This technique can help your child when they begin to feel overwhelmed with thoughts that perhaps you are not coming back for them. By identifying and changing those thoughts (for example, mommy always comes back in a little while), your child can continue playing while they wait.
The therapist may also suggest family counseling sessions as a method to work with you and other family members in reducing the anxiety possibly felt by all in the household, especially between the caregiver and the child. This is critically important if the caregiver is over-protective as the child can sense the adult’s anxiousness.
Separation Anxiety in Adults
Adults can develop separation anxiety over a child, spouse, aging parent, or pet. The anxiety is like what children feel when separated, but in this case, the worries and fears interfere with the adult’s responsibilities such as home and work. It may translate to you becoming an overprotective “helicopter” parent or a clingy spouse.
With separation anxiety, you may worry excessively that your child or spouse is going to be hurt when they are away from you. You may find yourself constantly messaging a teacher or daycare worker to find out how your child is doing throughout the day.
You may incessantly send messages and follow your spouse’s social media profiles for updates. When the school bus is late or your spouse works over, your anxiety mounts to the point that you have an anxiety attack.
Sometimes the separation anxiety is brought on by a traumatic adjustment such as the deployment of a military spouse for months at a time. Other times, the person experiencing separation anxiety also has a history of a mental health condition like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), social anxiety disorders, anxiety, and/or depression.
Treatment for Adults
Like diagnosing separation anxiety in children, the physician will run various tests to dismiss any other physical ailments that could be causing symptoms. The doctor will need to determine if your symptoms are interfering in your day-to-day life and responsibilities and have been an issue for a period of at least six months.
The physician can prescribe anti-anxiety medications such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) like sertraline (Zoloft) or paroxetine (Paxil). These medications typically take at least two weeks to increase the serotonin levels in the brain and relieve some of the symptoms associated with separation anxiety.
Your primary care physician may recommend a therapist to help you identify the root cause of your anxiety and learn new techniques on how to modify your behavior. Your therapy may consist of individual sessions and family counseling sessions if the therapist believes that working with your close family can promote healing. Family sessions also provide insight to the other members on what you are feeling with anxiety.
Whether it is you or your child (or both) who are experiencing separation anxiety, it is okay to ask for help. Treatment is available and can help get your life back on track. If you are feeling separation anxiety over the death of a loved one, speak to your therapist about complicated grief and how you can manage to move forward.
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