Separation Anxiety in Children
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 children 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. These children’s difficulties may indicate the presence of 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. Separation anxiety 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 Many children and teens with separation anxiety disorder appear depressed, withdrawn, and apathetic.
- 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 fearful 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?
- Racing heart
- General aches and pains
- Shortness of breath
- School refusal
- Avoiding participating in new activities or going places without a parent
- Refusal to sleep alone
- Asking a parent to be present or available
- Crying or having tantrums
- Refusal to be alone in a room
Common Situations or Affected Areas
- School absenteeism
- Refusing to attend school field trips, playdates, sleepovers, or other events
- 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 will develop 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 often manage their separation anxiety differently from younger children, making separation concerns harder to identify. They may not cry, cling or tantrum. Instead, they may: engage in reassurance or checking (e.g., text messages, GPS tracking); decline invitations to hang out with peers in order to stay home; refuse to go on overnight school trips of functions; have difficulty going to or staying at school all day; and demonstrate resistance to opportunities for independence, such as declining to attend their preferred university in order to attend a local community college. Similar to other disorders, a careful assessment from a trained mental health professional may be needed to identify the problem.
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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