In Parenting Help, Parents' Coaching

Helping Children with Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation Anxiety Disorder

While separation anxiety is a real problem for many separation anxiety disorder in children is the most common type. It is a diagnosed medical condition that affects many people all over the world. According to Massachusetts General Hospital anywhere from two to five percent of all children suffer from separation anxiety disorder.

Separation Anxiety In Infants

Separation anxiety in infants generally begins when babies are around seven months old. At this point they have established object permanence. It usually hits its peak when a baby is between 10 and 18 months old. Generally by the time they are three years of age it has disappeared all together. Any infant that has an anxious temperament in the early days of their life is more likely to suffer from this type of anxiety. It often shows up in infants whose parents have dealt with a panic disorder prior to the baby’s birth. Even generalized anxiety and depression in either parent can be passed along to an infant.

Separation Anxiety In Childhood

Children often begin to worry about leaving home and being away from their parents for any length of time. Being away from loved ones becomes overwhelming to them. Overall, anywhere from 4% to 5% of children (as well as adolescents) suffer from separation anxiety. In many children this manifests itself into a fear of going to school. Studies show 80% of the children who won’t attend school are diagnosed with separation anxiety. When these children are made to go to school they often skip participating in activities with their classmates. They often resist staying after school for anything or getting to school significantly early. Children suffering from separation anxiety often suffer from low self esteem as well. The anxiety itself even keeps them from concentrating in school and can lead to children receiving poor grades in their classes. As a result many children who suffer from separation anxiety also suffer with a learning disability.

They also often fight the need to go to bed every night and they complain about even the thought of being away from their parents. Many children who suffer from separation anxiety disorder are afraid to sleep alone because they have nightmares that involve separation.

Children suffering from separation anxiety are often interviewed by mental health professionals while the parents are interviewed separately. Most of the time children are sent for a medical evaluation following these interviews.

Causes Of Separation Anxiety In Children

Since not every child develops physically, mentally and emotionally in the same amount of time any child that is developing slower than they should be is at risk for suffering from separation anxiety. Children can see when they are developing slower than their peers and for some of them this causes a great deal of anxiety that leads them to become extremely upset when they must leave the familiarity of a loved one.

In many cases separation anxiety in children is caused by the vulnerability of their environment as well as genetic vulnerability. Separation anxiety is often passed down within families. There are risk factors that come into play within the subject of separation anxiety. Some of these factors are a super stressed out mother during pregnancy and low income living situations. Any child who suffers from separation anxiety is also likely to suffer from other forms of anxiety later on in life.

Some of the other things that can cause separation anxiety in children are an environmental change, parents who are over protective and simply feeling stress. Enrolling children in a new school or daycare program can cause this, as can moving them into a new residence. Overprotective parents often project their own anxiety onto their children, causing them to suffer from anxiety as well. When parents are cool, calm and collected, their children often are too.

The stress of losing a loved one, moving to a new home or something similar can cause separation anxiety disorder in children. They feel like they are losing everything they are familiar and they become terrified that if their parents leave them for any reason they will never come back. Parents who are feeling stressed out need to get the stress under control so their children don’t sense it. Children look to their parents to be their protector. If it seems like mom or dad is falling apart children can become overwhelmed by separation anxiety.

Treatments For Separation Anxiety

In general counseling is used to treat separation anxiety before medicine is considered as a treatment option. There are several kinds of counseling those with this anxiety can undergo, such as psychotherapy, cognitive therapy and behavioral therapy. In children individual psychotherapy is the method most often used. Many times these children feel like they are failures, and this leads to the separation anxiety. Group psychotherapy is also used to help children with separation anxiety communicate with other children who are too. They also get to practice their social skills around their peers who also suffer from separation therapy. Cognitive therapy helps children cope with being away from their parents and other loved ones. A clinician works with children to help them come up with methods to cope when they are away from their parents. This is often the treatment method used for adolescents as well.

Teachers and parents can also work together to help young people overcome separation anxiety. The medications that are used when therapy doesn’t work include fluvoxamine, tricyclic antidepressants and benzodiazepines, though this type of medication is generally only used as a last resort.

There are things parents can do at home to try and ease their child’s separation anxiety. They can leave their child with a babysitter for a short amount of time and stick close to home. When trying to break babies of separation anxiety it is best to do it right after the baby has had a nap and has been fed.

Another way to ease separation anxiety is for parents to create a goodbye routine that they practice every time they leave their child with a babysitter. The best bet is for the babysitter to come to the child’s home and watch them there. If a child must be taken somewhere else to be looked after it is important that they have a beloved item with them that will comfort them when their parents can’t. Whether a child is looked after at home or away from home it is important for parents to leave as soon as they have told the child they are leaving. Stalling only makes them think their parents are staying and this can make the separation anxiety worse.

The earlier in life a child is treated for separation anxiety the better chance they have at recovering. Their chances of recovery are even greater if the whole family is involved in the process. As children age they may experience occasional separation anxiety but most that get treated for it stop suffering from it constantly. Though no one knows of a way to prevent separation anxiety all together recognizing the symptoms and seeking help usually leads to children healing from their anxiety.

Imagery is sometimes used to help children overcome this type of anxiety. This involves the child imagining a situation that scares them. When they imagine that they are leaving their parents they think about just saying goodbye to them and going on with their day. This helps children adjust when it is time for their parents to leave them at school for the day. Positive mental pictures are often used to help children overcome the anxiety they feel when separated from their parents and other loved ones.

Systematic desensitization is also sometimes used in children with separation anxiety. This is a type of behavior modification in which children are exposed to anything that stresses them out. Relaxation techniques are then taught to children so that they can use those techniques to ease the anxiety they feel from the separation. This allows them to go to school or wherever else they may need to go without becoming anxious that they are no longer with their parents.


Separation anxiety is a disorder that many babies and children suffer from. However, they do not have to continue suffering as there are so many things that can be done to help children overcome their anxiety. Overcoming this anxiety frees them up to grow up and live a happy and successful life.

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