Parenting

What Causes Separation Anxiety?

Separation Anxiety Disorder: Symptoms, Risk Factors & Diagnosis

What is separation anxiety?

In babies and toddlers, separation anxiety is a normal phase of development. Although it can be frustrating as a parent, know that it is actually an indication of an emotional milestone, which usually starts when babies turn 8-9 months old. In this age, babies begin to understand that you are very important and you still exist even if they do not see you. However, separation anxiety tends to go away when children reach their second birthday. 

Children who have separation anxiety may excessively cling to their parents, protest on going to sleep without their parent or attachment figure by their side, or always demand that their parents accompany them everywhere they go. They may also experience physical symptoms when there is an anticipated separation, such as nausea, vomiting, and headaches

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Separation anxiety also occurs in adults. Most adults who have separation anxiety fear about things that could happen when they are away from home or when they are separated from the people they have become attached to. Adults with a separation anxiety disorder may feel uncomfortable when traveling alone, express excessive concerns when their children or spouse are away, or have nightmares about being suddenly separated from their loved ones or attachment figures.

Difference of Separation Anxiety in Children and Adults

Separation anxiety disorder is not commonly seen in most adults. Children are more prone to developing separation anxiety because they are still unable to realize how intense their anxiousness have become. It can be hard for children to distinguish that something is not right. 

Symptoms

Below are some of the symptoms related to separation anxiety:

  • Excessive distress when away from home or separated from their loved ones. 
  • Refuses to leave work, home, or school, or other places due to the fear of separation.  
  • Worries about losing their attachment figure or loved one. 
  • Having nightmares about being away from home or separated from their attachment figure. 
  • Having a constant fear of being alone or being without their loved one. This behavior can be mostly seen in young children, who cling to their parents or stay close to their parents even while at home. 
  • Constant worrying about experiencing any negative incidents that would separate them from their loved one.
  • Experiencing physical symptoms such as nausea, headache, or vomiting the moment they anticipate any kind of separation.

Separation anxiety disorder is considered when the above symptoms still persist for one month in children and six or more months in adults. The symptoms of separation anxiety disorder potentially cause problems in school, work, social role, and personal functioning due to persistent anxious thoughts. 

Causes

Separation anxiety happens when an individual feels unsafe without their attachment figures. Below is a list of some of the common causes of separation anxiety in children:

  • Stress: Stressful events in a child's life can often trigger separation anxiety. It includes going to a new school, loss of a dear pet, or losing an immediate family member.  
  • Changes in their existing environment: A change in the child's environment or surroundings, such as moving into a new home and going to school or daycare for the first time, could trigger separation anxiety.  
  • Overprotective parent: In some children, their separation anxiety could be a manifestation of their parent’s own anxieties. In such cases, both parents and their children tend to feed each other's anxieties.
  • Genetic: According to research, around 73 percent of individuals with separation anxiety disorder have family members who also have the condition. For this reason, experts suggest that the vulnerability to separation anxiety may be inherited. 

Treatment

To relieve separation anxiety in children, they must develop a sense of safety in their surroundings and environment as well as build trust in other people aside from their parents. The treatments available for older children and adults usually include anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medications), psychotherapy, and effective parenting techniques. In certain cases, treatment may also involve family therapy or family education. 

In the case of young children, the following tips can be helpful:

  • A hungry, tired, or sick child is more prone to developing separation anxiety. For this reason, make sure to schedule departures after mealtimes and after your child naps.
  • You can also reassure your child ahead of time that you will come back before your child starts to feel anxious about your departure. Try to react with confidence, patience, and understanding instead of expressing annoyance or anger to your child. 
  • Be sympathetic and stay calm when your child tries to throw temper tantrums. 
  • Avoid sneaking away from your child. Although it is quite tempting, it would only create more difficulties when you leave next time. 
  • Establish a feeling of security to your children by giving them the love and attention they need. Often, young children are able to learn faster when their parents are more understanding and affectionate toward them than parents who strictly impose punishments on them. 
  • Try and maintain to have control over your own anxieties because the moment your child senses your anxiety or even sees you in distress, it would be more than enough communication for them that something is not right and would react in a different manner. 

When to Seek Medical Help

If you have tried all your best to help ease your child's separation anxiety, but without success, you can seek help from a pediatrician or a child development specialist. Seek professional help if you notice any of the following extreme symptoms in your child:

  • Always fearful when leaving the house
  • Wants to skip school all the time
  • Age-inappropriate emotional responses such as tantrums and clinginess in teens
  • Isolation or withdrawal from friends, peers, and family
  • Always complaining about being physically unwell
  • Constantly distracted by guilt or extreme fear

Prevention

There is no known way of preventing separation anxiety. However, when the symptoms are early recognized and acted upon, distress and anxiety-related problems can be minimized. Future episodes of separation anxiety may also be prevented by teaching your child how to be independent and self-confident through your understanding, support, and approval. 

Key Takeaways

  • Separation anxiety happens when an individual feels unsafe without their attachment figures. 
  • Children who have separation anxiety may excessively cling to their parents, protest on going to sleep without their parent or attachment figure by their side, or always demand that their parents accompany them everywhere they go. 
  • Most adults who have separation anxiety fear about things that could happen when they are away from home or when they are separated from the people they have become attached to.