Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety disorder is a psychological problem in which fears of leaving your comfort zone or certain people interferes with your daily functioning. The DSM-IV and ICD-10 classify separation anxiety disorder as a condition that primarily affects children, however, there is increasing evidence that separation anxiety disorder can also occur in adults.

What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

It is important to distinguish separation anxiety from separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety is a normal part of development in babies. In the first half of their lives, babies will realize that they are individual people and thus can be separated from their parents (or caregiver). When the parent/caregiver leaves, the child will become anxious. Normal separation anxiety occurs around 8 months of age and lasts until about 18 months. As the child realizes that the parent/caregiver is likely to return after leaving, separation anxiety will abate. However, some sources show that normal separation anxiety can last until 3 years of age.

With separation anxiety disorder, the fear of separation becomes so strong that it inhibits your daily life. If you are child with this disorder, you may refuse to go anywhere without your parents/caregivers or you may throw tantrums when your parents/caregivers leave without you. You may also have troubles sleeping alone or you may make up physical ailments in order to avoid going places where the separation will occur.

Even though separation anxiety is classified as a childhood disorder, it has been evident in adults as well. If you are an adult with separation anxiety disorder, you may get anxious when being without a certain person (such as a spouse or friend). You may also constantly worry about the person during separation; fearing that the person will be in an accident. For example: you cannot contact your husband so you repeatedly called him throughout the day or leave your own job to look for him because you fear something tragic has happened to him.

How Common is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety disorder is common among small children.

Separation anxiety disorder is very common in children. Approximately 4 to 5% of children develop this disorder each year. While there has been little research on adult separation anxiety disorder, a 2006 survey analyzed by Katherine Shear and colleagues suggested that separation anxiety is prevalent among adults with 6.6% percent developing the disorder annually. According to Shear’s study, the majority of people with adult-onset separation anxiety did not experience it during childhood.

What Symptoms are Associated with Separation Anxiety Disorder?

The symptoms of separation anxiety disorder in adults and children may include:

  • Constant worry that something bad will happen to a loved one
  • Worrying about getting lost
  • Persistent refusal to go somewhere without a loved one
  • Lying or throwing fits in order to avoid separation
  • Refusing to sleep alone
  • Becoming sad or distressed when separated
  • Becoming sad or distressed when thinking about separation

In if you an adult with separation anxiety disorder, you may experience different symptoms then a child. Your symptoms may consist of repeatedly calling a loved one for fear they will not return. You may also go to great lengths to physically find your loved one.

What Causes Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Separation anxiety disorder is likely caused from a combination of environmental and genetic causes. There is some evidence that parents who excessively worry about their children can cause separation anxiety disorder in their children. Loss of a loved one can also result in separation anxiety in both adults and children. A genetic predisposition to anxiety disorders can also lead to the condition.

Over half of children with separation anxiety disorder are from low social-economic statuses. Some experts believe that childhood separation anxiety disorder is over-diagnosed in this group as they often live in high-crime communities and thus may have a legitimate reason to fear the departure of their loved ones.

How Is Separation Anxiety Disorder Treated?

In most cases, pediatric and adult separation anxiety disorder is treated with individual psychotherapy. During therapy, you are able to discuss your emotions related to the separation and overcome them. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also used for treating separation anxiety. The focus of therapy is help you overcome negative thoughts related to the separation. As part of the behavioral aspect of therapy, you may be taught ways to control your reactions to the separation such as relaxation techniques.

Behavioral modification therapy is used for treating childhood separation anxiety. Under this approach, you are rewarded for overcoming your fear of separation. For example: you would be rewarded with a story if you went into your room alone and got into bed. Behavioral modification therapy should be done in small steps so that your confidence level increases. This should occur until you feel comfortable being alone. For childhood separation anxiety, it may also be critical for your parents to attend guidance sessions where they can learn skill that will help you overcome your anxiety.

If counseling is not enough to treat separation anxiety disorder medications may be used. SSRI antidepressants are commonly used to treat separation anxiety disorder.

Where Can I Find Additional Information On This Disorder?

If you have a child that exhibits signs of separation anxiety disorder – talk to your child’s physician for advice. A physician will be able to help you determine whether your child displaying a normal response to the separation or whether the symptoms are warnings signs of a separation anxiety disorder. You can also seek assistance from your child’s school guidance counselor. Some schools may even offer group counseling sessions for children with separation anxiety disorder. Most mental health care professionals can recognize separation anxiety disorder in adults and offer treatment.


American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC.

Bogels, S. M. & Zigterman, D. (2000). Dysfunctional cognitions in children with social phobia, separation anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology.

Mofrad, S., Abdullah, R., Bahaman, A. S., Mansor, M. B. & Baba, M. B. (2009). Maternal psychological distress and separation anxiety in children. European Journal of Social Sciences.

Treichel, J. A. (2006). Adult separation anxiety often overlooked diagnosis. Psychiatric News.


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