Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety disorder
Photo Credit: Tomsickova Tatyana/

What is a separation anxiety disorder?

Separation anxiety disorder is one that occurs commonly in babies between the ages of 8 to 12 months and usually fades around the age of 2. Separation anxiety disorder in adults is also a common occurrence.

This disorder reflects a general mood and mental health condition. About a third of children with this condition will be diagnosed with mental health conditions in adulthood.

About 3 to 4% of children have a separation anxiety disorder. It can also occur in adults.

Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder

This condition occurs when a child is separated from the parents or caregivers. The common symptoms that manifest will include:

  • Clinginess to parents
  • Crying severely
  • Avoiding things that can cause separation
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Physical symptoms such as headache, or vomiting
  • Poor school performance
  • Refusal to sleep alone
  • Temper tantrums
  • Violent behaviors
  • Nightmares
  • Refusal to make friends

Risk factors for separation anxiety disorder

This condition can occur due to familial or environmental conditions. It can also occur when exposed to some amount of stress. The following conditions make one more likely to develop separation anxiety disorder:

  • Family history of anxiety
  • Family history of depression
  • Having a shy, timid personality
  • Overprotective parents
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Lack of appropriate communication with parents
  • Children born to teenage parents
  • Changing schools
  • Moving to a new home
  • Divorce
  • Loss of a loved one

Diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder

When a child has at least three of the above symptoms, separation anxiety can be diagnosed. However, additional tests may be requested to further confirm the diagnosis.

The doctor will also observe how you interact with your child to determine if the mode of parenting contributes to anxiety.

Treatment for separation anxiety disorder

It is effectively combated by the use of therapy and drugs.


Behavioral therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy is very effective. It teaches the child coping techniques for anxiety. The common techniques used here are relaxation and deep breathing.

Another helpful therapy is parent-child interaction therapy. It is made up of 3 phases:

  • Child-directed interaction: here, the focus is on making better the quality of the parent-child relationship. It makes a child feel safe as the parents’ shower praise, attention, and warmth.
  • Bravery-directed interaction: this focuses on parent education as to why their child feels anxiety. The therapists develop a ladder which lists conditions that can cause anxiety. This ladder is called a bravery ladder as a positive reaction when faced with an anxiety-causing situation, is rewarded.
  • Parent-directed interaction: this teaches patients to communicate more with their child to help manage poor behavior.

The school environment also affects the outcome. It should serve as a safe place for the child to go when anxious. Also, there should be a means for your child to reach you during school hours or when they are away from home.

The teacher should encourage the child to interact with classmates. Do well to speak with the class teacher, principal or guidance counselor if you have concerns about your child’s classroom.


There are no particular drugs for this condition. When therapy has proven un-effective, antidepressants can be given but only to older children. This decision must be thought out and decided by the doctor and caregivers. Afterward, close monitoring for side effects should be done.

Effects of separation anxiety disorder on the family

This disorder severely affects emotional and social growth. It can cause avoidance of conditions that are necessary for normal development.

Some of the difficulties this condition may pose to a family include:

  • Parents lacking time for each other and themselves and ultimately being frustrated
  • Family activities hampered by negative behavior
  • Siblings rivalry

If you have a child with SAD, speak to your doctor about how well to manage symptoms and possible effects on family life.

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