Separation Anxiety Disorder

Reviewed/Revised Oct 2022
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What is separation anxiety disorder?

Anxiety is being worried or nervous. Separation anxiety is the normal reaction of young children to get upset and cry when someone they're attached to leaves the room. It usually starts when babies are about 8 months old and lasts until they're about 2 or 3. Separation anxiety disorder is different.

Separation anxiety disorder is when:

  • Anxiety at being separated from the caregiver is much stronger than normal or lasts to an older age

  • The anxiety keeps the child from doing everyday activities

In general:

  • Separation anxiety disorder is more common in preschoolers, gets less common with age, and is rare in teens

  • The child feels very stressed

  • Separation anxiety disorder may be worse after holidays and school breaks

  • Behavior therapy helps

What causes separation anxiety disorder?

Separation anxiety disorder usually just happens. It can be triggered by a stressful event, such as:

  • The death of a family member, friend, or pet

  • Moving to a new place

  • Changing schools

Also, children with anxious parents are often more anxious.

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder?

A child with separation anxiety disorder:

  • Cries hard for a long time when separated from home or loved ones

  • Begs the loved one not to leave

  • When separated, can think only of the loved one coming back

  • Fears that something bad, like a car crash, will happen to the loved one

  • Acts normally and seems just fine when the loved one is around

Often, the child seems so desperate that parents can't bear to leave the child. That can affect the child's life because the child may:

  • Not be able to go to school

  • Be afraid to stay overnight with, or even visit, relatives or friends

  • Sometimes not stay alone in a room even when the loved one is at home

Sometimes, a child may also have physical symptoms such as:

  • Headaches

  • Stomach aches

  • Nightmares

How do doctors treat separation anxiety disorder?

Doctors treat separation anxiety disorder with:

  • Therapy for children and their parents or caregivers

  • In severe cases, medicine

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