Separation Anxiety Disorder

Overview

Separation Anxiety Disorder involves fear and/or anxiety associated from actually or potentially being separated from someone you feel a strong connection to.

Image of a child peering through a window.

The Details

A person with Separation Anxiety Disorder has fear and/or anxiety around being separated from someone they’re emotionally close to. Fear is the response to an immediate and present threat, while anxiety is a response to an anticipated threat. Specifically this diagnosis involves significant levels of stress associated with being away from loved ones, family, friends, caregivers, or anyone that you feel a strong connection to.


There is often fear and worry that this other person or other people will be harmed, whether by sickness, injury, natural disaster, etc., which frequently leads to insisting on knowing the whereabouts of the “attachment figure” or person you feel connected to.


That same fear can also extend to yourself, where you worry about something happening to you that might cause a separation (e.g. being kidnapped or getting lost). This can lead a person with Separation Anxiety Disorder to avoid leaving the home or any other place where an attachment figure may be.


A person may also worry about being left alone for fear that their attachment figure may not return, or a refusal to sleep away from home, such as overnight at a friend’s house or in a hotel if that other person isn’t also there. Nightmares about being separated along with physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or nausea when separation actually occurs are also common symptoms.


Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder often struggle at bedtime if their attachment figure isn’t there with them until they fall asleep. Children are more likely to experience physical symptoms such as nausea or headaches when separated, while adults may experience different physical symptoms like heart palpitations or dizziness.


In addition to feeling anxious and fearful, people may also experience sadness, become socially withdrawn, have difficulty concentrating, or become angry at a person believed to have cause the separation. For example, a camp counselor may be blamed when a parent drops off their child and drives away. Finally, because of their insistence on the attachment figure constantly being by their side this diagnosis can be the cause of a lot of frustration and resentment.

Trends

Separation Anxiety Disorder occurs most often in children. Studies have shown the diagnosis to occur in approximately 4% of children, 1.6% of adolescents, and 1-2% of adults. It is more common in females than males.


Given the increased occurrence in children, it is important to note that around the age of one it is normal for children to develop an attachment to their parents or other caregivers and separation from those parents/caregivers will cause a healthy degree of distress. Similarly, children around this age also begin to develop anxiety around strangers. This is normal and not a reason for concern. A diagnosis of Separation Anxiety Disorder is more likely to occur if the child is at least of preschool age.


Children with the diagnosis may have trouble attending or staying at school. Adolescents and children may have trouble with sleepovers, going away to college, getting married and moving away from home, or on a business trip that requires travel.


Separation Anxiety Disorder is common after a loss such as the death of a pet, loss of a loved one, a family member becoming sick, parents getting divorced, moving to a new city, etc.


Additionally, it’s common for parents who have had Separation Anxiety Disorder to be worried about their own children’s possible distress about separation.

Summary

Separation Anxiety Disorder involves fear and/or anxiety about actually or potentially being separated from someone you feel especially close to, namely an “attachment figure”. That fear or anxiety can cause a person to worry about things or people that may cause a separation, including events such as accidents that may occur to either oneself or the attachment figure.


Separation Anxiety Disorder can lead people to avoid social situations where the attachment figure will not be present such as school, work, trips, sleepovers, and even major life events such as getting married, going away to college, or moving to another city.


Because of the persistent fear, those with this diagnosis often insist that the attachment figure keep in contact at all times, a request that can feel burdensome on even the strongest of relationships. This can lead to frustration, anger, and resentment both on the part of the attachment figure and others directly or indirectly impacted.


Separation Anxiety Disorder is most common in children and should not be confused with a natural connection held towards a parent or caregiver that tends to become strongest around one year of age. Similarly, feelings of “stranger danger” are a normal, protective feature that help to keep young children safe.

Disclaimer

All information on this website has been professionally prepared, but also intentionally written in a manner that is not overly technical. The terms used here are usually, but not always the formal and proper terminology or diagnoses that would be used between professionals. Similarly, we made a decision to not provide the full and exhaustive diagnostic criteria here. This is done so as to be informative and more easily understood by people who are not in the field of mental health. At the same time all reasonable efforts are taken to assure that the information presented here is as accurate as possible. We also provide a list of common definitions and abbreviations that you may find useful.

While clinical descriptions are not intended to be overly technical, they do attempt to be accurate and consistent with the DSM standards. Any changes made are superficial and done so for the sake of ease of comprehension.

 

It’s important to point out that the information provided on this website is not designed to replace a proper clinical assessment performed by a qualified professional. The descriptions on this website are not intended, nor should they be used to self-diagnose or to diagnose those around you.

Please also see our Terms & Conditions and particularly the sections on Clinical Information and Mental Health Conditions.