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Separation Anxiety

It is normal for young children to sometimes feel worried or upset when faced with routine separations from their parents or other important caregivers causing them to cry, cling, or refuse to part.

Usually such separation anxiety fades as they grow up, begin school, and gain confidence. However, for some children their response to actual or anticipated separations is far more extreme than their peers, and/or continues well beyond the first 1-2 years of school. For these children it is likely that they may have separation anxiety disorder.

Separation anxiety disorder can really interfere with or limit a child or teen’s normal activities. He or she can become isolated from peers, and have difficulty developing and maintaining friendships. It can also lead to missed opportunities to learn new things and engage in fun activities. School attendance and performance can drop. Many children and teens with separation anxiety disorder appear depressed, withdrawn, and apathetic.

Facts

  • Approximately 4% of youth will suffer from separation anxiety disorder during any given school year.
  • Separation anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder in children under 12 years of age, with a gradual decrease in frequency as children mature into adolescence and adulthood. However, separation anxiety can continue well into adulthood, and even begin in adulthood.
  • Onset of separation anxiety peaks at several points of development including with entry into Kindergarten, between ages 7-9, and again with either entry into Middle or High School.
  • Boys and girls are equally affected by separation anxiety.

Signs & Symptoms

Thoughts (Note: very young children may be unable to identify specific fear thoughts):

  • What if something bad happens to mom or dad?
  • What if I get lost?
  • What if grandma doesn’t pick me up after school?
  • What if I get kidnapped?
  • What if I get sick and mom isn’t there to help me?

Physical feelings:

  • Stomachaches
  • Dizziness
  • Racing heart
  • General aches and pains
  • Headaches
  • Shortness of breath

Emotions:

  • Anxiety/worry/fear
  • Shame
  • Embarrassment
  • Helplessness
  • Sadness
  • Anger

Behaviors:

  • School refusal
  • Avoiding participating in new activities or going places without a parent
  • Refusal to sleep alone
  • Nightmares
  • Asking a parent to be present or available
  • Crying or tantrumming
  • Cannot be alone in a room

Common Situations or Affected Areas

  • School absenteeism
  • Refusing to attend school field trips
  • Inability to make and maintain friendships due to fear of being away from parents
  • Lack of independence in a variety of domains (e.g. sleeping, playing, socializing, going away to college, etc.)
  • Increased dependence among family members

The following video provides valuable information about how separation anxiety affects children and youth, and four effective interventions that can offer relief not only for your child, but for the entire family.

How separation anxiety impacts the child at different ages

In the preschool and early childhood years, separation anxiety presents with more physical and observable signs such as complaints about stomachache or general ailments, as well as crying, clinging, refusal to part, and sometimes full-blown tantrums. Furthermore, these signs are often more common on Sunday nights and Monday mornings with the anticipation of a return to school, as well as following vacations and other extended periods of time off from school. Many parents are able to recognize that their child is struggling with separation anxiety within the first few weeks to months of witnessing a repeating pattern of these behaviours. In addition, teachers are often well equipped to notice and manage separation anxious kids as it is more expected in these early years.

However, as children mature into adolescence, most people expect that youth will move beyond childhood fears of separation from loved ones, and are capable of increased independence. Unfortunately, for some youth these fears either persist or emerge for the first time (sometimes occurring after a stressful event such as a divorce, loss of a loved one, or transition to a new school/community). Adolescents behave differently than younger children, no longer crying, clinging and tantrumming, but instead may decline invitations to hang out with peers, preferring to stay home on weekends, or cut school to return home, and even limiting their adult desires, such as planning to remain at home and attend a local community college rather than going away. As a result, it can be harder than in younger children to understand what is causing an adolescent to behave in this way. Like other disorders, a careful assessment from a trained mental health professional can determine what is going on.

My Anxiety Plan (MAPs)

MAP is designed to provide children/teens struggling with anxiety with practical strategies and tools to manage anxiety. To find out more, visit our My Anxiety Plan website.

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