topStrip1

User Icon callStrip

​​Understanding Separation Anxiety: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

separation anxiety symptoms

Whether you're a parent dropping off your child at school, a student leaving home for the first time, or simply someone struggling with the fear of being alone, separation anxiety can be a challenging and overwhelming experience.

Separation anxiety is a natural reaction to separation from someone or something we are emotionally attached to. It can manifest in various ways and affect people  of all ages. Separation anxiety is most commonly associated with children and their attachment to parents or caregivers, but it can also be experienced by adults in relationships or between friends, siblings, and sibling-parent dynamics.

While separation anxiety can be challenging, strategies and treatments are available to help manage and overcome it. Understanding the root causes of separation anxiety and developing coping mechanisms can help us and our loved ones feel more comfortable and confident during times of separation. Continue reading to learn how anxiety therapy and children’s counseling can help manage the stress during separation anxiety in children, parents, and adults.

Conclusion

Separation anxiety can affect children and adults, but how it manifests and impacts their lives can differ. It's possible to manage and overcome separation anxiety through counseling and self-healing.

Working with a licensed counselor can help identify triggers, develop coping strategies, address negative thought patterns, and engage in therapy. Parents can also participate in counseling to learn how to manage their child's anxiety.

At Lifebulb, we offer counseling services for separation anxiety for children and adults, using techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and relaxation techniques. Contact us to schedule an appointment with one of our trained therapists.

How Can You Find the Right Separation Anxiety Therapist?

Finding the right mental health therapist and separation anxiety therapist can be a crucial step toward managing and overcoming separation anxiety in a child or an adult. Here are some important tips on how you can find the right separation anxiety therapist for yourself or your child:

  1. Look for a Licensed Professional: It is essential to look for a licensed mental health professional with experience treating separation anxiety. Look for a licensed professional, such as a licensed clinical social worker, licensed professional therapist, and licensed psychologist, who has completed the necessary training and education to provide mental health services.
  2. Consider Experience: Look for a therapist with experience treating separation anxiety in children and adults. A therapist specializing in anxiety disorders may also have experience treating separation anxiety.
  3. Check Credentials: Make sure the therapist has the appropriate credentials and certifications. For example, a therapist may have additional certifications in cognitive-behavioral therapy or play therapy.
  4. Look for a Good Fit: The right therapist for you or your child should be someone with whom you feel comfortable and safe. Consider scheduling an initial consultation or appointment to determine if the therapist is a good fit.
  5. Consider the Therapist's Approach: Look for a therapist who uses evidence-based treatments and has experience treating separation anxiety using various approaches. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, play therapy, and parent-child interaction therapy are all effective approaches for treating separation anxiety.
  6. Check Insurance Coverage: If you have health insurance, check your insurance plan to see if they cover mental health services. Make sure the therapist you choose is in-network to minimize out-of-pocket costs.
  7. Ask for Referrals: Ask for referrals from family members, friends, or your primary care physician. You can also search online for a therapist in your area who specializes in treating separation anxiety.

Coping Tools for Separation Anxiety

Self-care and coping skills can also be a helpful way to support children and adults in managing their separation anxiety. Dealing with separation anxiety through self-healing can involve several strategies. It's crucial to be patient and compassionate with yourself as you navigate your journey toward healing from separation anxiety. However, it's important to remember that self-healing should not replace professional counseling or therapy for children with severe separation anxiety.

  1. Encourage open communication: Establish open communication between yourself and your safe person or between yourself and your child. 
  2. Provide reassurance: Let your child know that they are loved and cared for and that you will always be there for them. This can help to build their sense of security and resilience.
  3. Practice relaxation techniques: Encouraging your child to practice techniques like deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or yoga can be helpful. These techniques can be helpful in calming the body and reducing anxiety.
  4. Create a routine: Establishing a consistent routine can help to provide a sense of structure and predictability, which can be comforting when dealing with separation anxiety.
  5. Use positive affirmations: Use positive affirmations, such as "I am brave" or "I can handle this," to help build self-confidence and resilience. They can be longer and more personal for adults. 
  6. Model healthy coping skills: Children learn by example, so modeling healthy coping skills can be an effective way to help your child manage their separation anxiety. Practice self-care and stress-reduction techniques, and model positive ways of coping with stress and anxiety.
  7. Mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation requires focusing on the present moment and developing awareness of your thoughts and feelings without judgment. Practicing mindfulness meditation can help you manage anxiety by reducing stress and increasing your ability to cope with difficult emotions.
  8. Exercise: Exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety by releasing natural chemicals like endorphins in the body to promote feelings of well-being. Regular exercise also improves sleep quality, which can help manage anxiety symptoms.
  9. Journaling: Writing about your feelings and thoughts can help you process and manage your emotions. Try keeping a journal to write about your experiences with separation anxiety and to explore your thoughts and feelings about it.
  10. Breathing exercises: Breathing exercises, like deep breathing or progressive muscle relaxation, can help you manage anxiety by promoting relaxation and reducing stress.
  11. Self-care: Practicing self-care, such as eating a healthy diet, engaging in activities you enjoy, and getting enough sleep, can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being.
  12. Seek support: Talking to a trusted family member or friend about your separation anxiety can also be helpful. Besides, joining a support group or seeking professional counseling can provide additional support and guidance in managing separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety Therapy in Adults

Separation anxiety in adults can be a challenging and distressing experience. However, seeking therapy can be a helpful way to manage separation anxiety. Here are some ways in which therapy can help:

  1. Identifying triggers: A therapist can help you understand the underlying causes of your separation anxiety, which can help you recognize and manage your feelings. One of the primary ways a therapist can help is by identifying triggers. By identifying your specific triggers, you can learn to develop coping mechanisms and strategies to manage your anxiety when you encounter those triggers.
  2. Developing coping strategies: Another way therapy can help is by developing coping strategies. Your therapist will teach you relaxation techniques like visualization, deep breathing, and progressive muscle relaxation to help you cope with anxiety. They can also help you build healthy coping mechanisms when you feel anxious.
  3. Addressing negative thought patterns: Addressing negative thought patterns is another approach that can help manage separation anxiety. A separation anxiety therapist can help you identify and challenge negative thought patterns contributing to your anxiety. They can help you develop more positive and realistic ways of thinking about separation.
  4. Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy is a technique that involves gradually exposing you to situations that trigger your anxiety in a controlled and safe environment. A separation anxiety therapist will guide you through this process to help you overcome your anxiety. This technique can be effective for individuals with severe separation anxiety.
  5. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is another type of therapy that focuses on altering negative thought patterns and behaviors. A therapist can help you identify and change the thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to your anxiety. By changing these patterns, you can learn to manage your anxiety more positively.
  6. Medication: In many cases, medication may be prescribed to manage severe separation anxiety. A therapist can work with you and your doctor to determine if medication is appropriate for your situation.

Is It Normal for Children to Have Separation Anxiety?

You may sometimes wonder whether it's okay for you or your child to have separation anxiety. Well, the answer to the question is yes. It is normal to experience some level of separation anxiety, especially during childhood development. However, it can become a concern when the anxiety symptoms become excessive or start to interfere with daily activities.

Mild separation anxiety is considered normal and can help your child to develop a healthy attachment to you or their primary caregivers. However, when the anxiety becomes persistent and excessive, it can cause significant distress to the child and impact their development, socialization, and daily functioning.

In adults, separation anxiety can interfere with the ability to build and maintain healthy relationships and can significantly impact their quality of life. It is essential to recognize and seek help if the symptoms of separation anxiety become persistent, excessive, and start to impact your daily life.

Mental health professionals can provide support and guidance in developing coping strategies, identifying triggers, and addressing underlying issues that may contribute to anxiety. With appropriate treatment and support, people with separation anxiety can learn to manage their symptoms and live a healthy, fulfilling life.

Coping with Separation Anxiety

Dealing with separation anxiety can be challenging, but there are ways to manage and overcome it. Therapy for separation anxiety alongside good self-care and coping mechanisms have successfully treated separation anxiety in children and adults. Mentioned below are some methods for dealing with separation anxiety.

Therapy for Separation Anxiety

Therapy can be an effective way to help children and adults cope with separation anxiety. It's important to find a counselor who has experience working with children and is compassionate and patient to help your child feel safe and supported as they learn to manage their anxiety. Similarly, it's essential to find a therapist who specializes in treating separation anxiety in adults and uses evidence-based therapies, such as CBT or exposure therapy.

Separation Anxiety Therapy for Children

Counseling can be an effective way to assist children in managing their separation anxiety. Here are some ways a counselor can work with the child:

  1. Identifying triggers: Separation anxiety can have specific triggers, such as separation from a parent or caregiver or fear of being alone. A counselor can work with your child to identify these triggers, which can help them recognize and manage their feelings when they arise.
  2. Relaxation techniques: A counselor can teach your child relaxation techniques, like progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, etc. These techniques can help them cope with anxiety by calming their mind and body.
  3. Cognitive-behavioral therapy: Cognitive-behavioral therapy focuses on identifying and altering negative thought patterns and behaviors contributing to anxiety. A counselor can work with your child to challenge negative thoughts and develop more positive coping strategies.
  4. Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy uses gradually exposing the child to situations that trigger their anxiety while providing support and guidance to help them learn to cope with their feelings. This helps your child become more comfortable with separation and reduces anxiety.
  5. Play therapy: Play therapy can be a helpful way for young children to express and process their feelings about separation anxiety in a safe and supportive environment. The counselor may use toys, games, and other activities to help your child explore their emotions and develop coping skills.
  6. Parent involvement: In some cases, counseling may involve working with the child's parents to develop strategies for managing their child's separation anxiety. The counselor can guide you on gradually increasing separation time or using a comfort object, such as a special toy or blanket, to help your child feel more secure. Your involvement can also help you understand your child's feelings and develop a plan to support them.

Adult Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is not limited to children and can affect adults as well. Here are some common ways that separation anxiety feels in adults:

  1. Intense Worry and Fear: If you're an adult dealing with separation anxiety, you may often experience intense worry and fear about being separated from your loved ones or pets. This fear can be overwhelming and make it challenging for you to function daily.
  2. Difficulty Forming or Maintaining Relationships: Adults with separation anxiety may struggle to form or maintain relationships due to their fear of being separated from their loved ones. You may avoid forming close relationships or excessively cling to your partners, friends, or family members.
  3. Avoidance Behaviors: Adults with separation anxiety may engage in avoidance behaviors to prevent separation from their loved ones. For example, you may avoid going to work or social events, refuse to travel, or avoid situations where you may be separated from your loved ones.
  4. Panic Attacks: Separation anxiety can also cause panic attacks in adults. These attacks may be triggered by thoughts of being separated from your loved ones or pets or may occur when you are separated from them.
  5. Physical Symptoms: Separation anxiety may cause physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, and nausea in you. These symptoms can be distressing and may impact your daily functioning.
  6. Difficulty Sleeping Alone: Similar to children, adults with separation anxiety may have difficulty sleeping alone. You may require your partner or a pet to be with you to fall asleep.
  7. Fear of Abandonment: If you’re dealing with separation anxiety, you may fear abandonment by your loved ones. You may fear that your loved ones will leave you or not return.

What are the Causes of Separation Anxiety?

The causes of separation anxiety can be complex and vary from person to person. In children, separation anxiety is often a normal part of development as they begin to form attachments and understand the concept of object permanence—the idea that objects continue to exist even when they are out of sight. However, separation anxiety can persist beyond the normal developmental stage for some children and become a more significant issue.

In adults, separation anxiety can stem from various factors, including attachment issues, childhood experiences, trauma, and personality disorders. For example, if you have a history of abandonment or neglect, you may be more prone to experiencing separation anxiety. Additionally, if you have anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, you may be more susceptible to experiencing separation anxiety.

Researchers agree that common causes of separation anxiety include: 

  1. Genetics: Research indicates that genetics can play a role in the development of separation anxiety. If your family has a history of anxiety disorders, including separation anxiety, your child is more likely to develop the condition.
  2. Environmental Factors: Environmental factors such as trauma, stressful life events, or changes in the routine or environment can trigger separation anxiety. For example, moving to a new house, a new school, or losing a loved one can trigger separation anxiety.
  3. Attachment Issues: Disorganized or anxious attachment styles may be more prevalent in people with separation anxiety. 
  4. Predisposition to anxiety: If you are already an anxious person, it’s easy to imagine bad things may happen if you are apart from your safe person. People who are prone to anxiety are also more at risk for developing separation anxiety. In children, this may come across as quietness or shyness, but not all the time.  
  5. Life Transitions: Major life transitions such as moving to a new place, starting a new job, or going through a breakup or divorce can trigger feelings of separation anxiety. These changes can disrupt your sense of security and stability, leading to feelings of fear and uncertainty.
  6. Trauma: Traumatic experiences like physical or emotional abuse, neglect, or a significant loss can trigger separation anxiety in adults. Trauma can affect your ability to trust others and feel safe in relationships, leading to anxiety and fear of separation.

In adults, substance abuse can also trigger separation anxiety. Substance abuse can disrupt brain chemistry and contribute to anxiety disorders, including separation anxiety. Substance use can also be a coping mechanism for underlying feelings of anxiety and fear of separation.

When Does Separation Anxiety Start?

Separation anxiety can start in early childhood, typically around 6 to 8 months of age. Infants may show signs of distress when separated from primary caregivers, displaying clinginess, crying, and seeking comfort. This is a normal part of development as babies begin to understand object permanence—the concept that objects (or people) exist even when they are out of sight. Understanding this can help caregivers provide reassurance and support during this stage.

At What Age Does Separation Anxiety Typically Peak?

Separation anxiety often peaks around 12 to 18 months of age, but it’s normal for some separation anxiety to linger until around 3-4 years old. Toddlers may become more aware of separations from caregivers and experience heightened distress during these times. This phase is a natural part of emotional development and usually lessens as children grow older and develop coping mechanisms. Providing consistency, reassurance, and positive reinforcement can help toddlers navigate separation anxiety and build resilience over time. Remember, each child is unique, and offering understanding and support during this period can make a significant difference in their emotional well-being.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety looks very differently in adults than it does in children, but the central conflict remains the same: fear of being left alone without their safe person. In children, who do not have the emotional regulation and social understanding of adults, this may look like tantrums, crying, and trying to get back to their safe person. In adults, it can take on a more nuanced and complicated symptomatology, making it difficult to spot right away. 

Let’s look at the symptoms of separation anxiety in children and in adults. 

Child Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety can be a challenging condition for children, and it can manifest in several ways. Here are some common ways that separation anxiety feels in children:

  1. Fear and Distress: If your child suffers from separation anxiety, they may often feel intense fear and distress when separated from you if you are their primary caregiver, especially their mother. This fear can be intense, and your child may worry that you will not return or that something unpleasant will happen to them or you, their caregiver.
  2. Crying and Clingy Behavior: Children may cry, scream or display clingy behavior when their caregiver tries to leave them. They may follow the caregiver around the house or refuse to let them out of sight.
  1. Refusal to Attend School or Daycare: If your child has separation anxiety, they may refuse to attend school or daycare because they do not want to be separated from you, their caregiver. This leads to academic and social difficulties. In its most severe form, SAD may result in school refusal and disruption in educational attainment. It has been estimated that approximately 75% of children with separation anxiety exhibit some form of school-refusal behavior.
  2. Difficulty Sleeping Alone: Children with separation anxiety may have trouble sleeping alone. They may often wake up at night and require their caregiver to be with them to fall asleep.
  3. Physical Symptoms: Separation anxiety can also cause physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, and nausea. These symptoms can be distressing for your child and can impact their daily functioning.
  4. Worry About Caregiver's Safety: Children may worry about their caregiver's safety when separated. They may fear that their caregiver will be in an accident or get sick.
  5. Fear of Abandonment: Children with separation anxiety may fear abandonment. They may worry that you, their caregiver will leave them or not return.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a psychological condition characterized by excessive fear or distress when an individual is separated from someone or something they are emotionally attached to. The fear or distress experienced can be intense and negatively impact an individual's daily life.

Separation anxiety is most commonly associated with children, especially those between the ages of 8 months to 3 years, who develop a strong attachment to their primary caregiver, often their mother. Separation anxiety can also be experienced by older children, adolescents, and adults, especially those who have experienced significant life changes such as divorce, moving to a new city, or losing someone loved.

Frequently Asked Questions

The duration of separation anxiety can vary depending on the person and the severity of the symptoms. For children, separation anxiety typically peaks between 8-14 months of age and usually resolves by age 2-3 years. However, sometimes your child may experience separation anxiety into their school-age years.

 

In adults, separation anxiety can be more long-lasting and may persist for years if left untreated. The length of time it lasts can depend on the underlying causes and your willingness to seek treatment and implement coping strategies.

Contacting a mental health professional is crucial if separation anxiety persists and interferes with daily activities, relationships, and overall well-being. With the right treatment and support, separation anxiety can be effectively managed and overcome.

It is not always possible to prevent separation anxiety from developing in your child, as some level of anxiety and distress is a normal part of development. However, there are some strategies that parents and caregivers can use to help reduce the risk of separation anxiety or alleviate its severity:

 

1. Building trust with your child through positive interactions and consistent routines can help them feel secure and safe.
2. Gradually introduce your child to separation in a supportive and reassuring manner. This can involve short separations, such as leaving your child with a trusted caregiver for brief periods and gradually increasing the time.
3. Make a safe and comfortable environment for your child at home with familiar and comforting objects such as blankets, toys, and pictures.
4. Encourage your child's independence and self-confidence by allowing them to make simple choices and decisions.
5. Appreciate your child for their efforts and accomplishments, and reinforce positive behaviors with rewards and incentives.
6. Model healthy coping strategies for your child by practicing self-care and stress-management techniques, such as exercise, relaxation techniques, and seeking support from others.
7. If you notice signs of separation anxiety in your child, seek help from a mental health professional who can provide guidance and support for managing symptoms and preventing them from worsening.

Separation anxiety can affect both parents and children, but the experience can differ between the two. Here are some parameters based on which you can differentiate between separation anxiety in parents and children:

 

1. Triggers: Separation anxiety in your child can be triggered by separation from you or a primary caregiver. For you, a parent, separation anxiety may be triggered by separation from your child or other loved ones.
2. Expression: Your child may express separation anxiety through clinging, crying, or refusing to go to school or daycare. Parents may experience physical symptoms such as panic attacks, difficulty sleeping, or feeling restless or on edge.
3. Duration: Separation anxiety in children is typically a temporary phase lasting several weeks or months. In contrast, separation anxiety in parents may persist for a longer time if left untreated.
4. Impact: Separation anxiety may interfere with your child's ability to participate in daily activities or form new relationships. For  parents, separation anxiety may interfere with their ability to function in their daily roles and responsibilities, including work and  social activities.
5. Treatment: Treatment for separation anxiety for children involves behavioral therapy, relaxation techniques, or medication in  severe cases. Whereas for parents, treatment may involve counseling or therapy to help manage symptoms and develop coping strategies.

Separation anxiety typically peaks around 12 to 18 months of age. During this time, children may show heightened distress when separated from primary caregivers.

 Signs of separation anxiety in relationships may include fear of being alone, excessive worry about harm befalling loved ones, reluctance to leave the presence of a loved one, and difficulty in managing separations.

 Dealing with separation anxiety involves strategies such as gradual exposure to separations, creating predictable routines, practicing relaxation techniques, seeking therapy for coping skills, and building a strong support system.

 The causes of separation anxiety can stem from early life experiences, genetics, temperament, changes in routine or environment, trauma, or insecure attachment styles.

 Yes, at Lifebulb, we have compassionate therapists experienced in helping individuals navigate separation anxiety. Our therapists are dedicated to building a strong client-therapist relationship to support your mental well-being effectively.

 Separation anxiety can start in early childhood, typically around 6 to 8 months of age, as infants begin to understand object permanence and may become distressed when separated from caregivers.

Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder may include excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separations, persistent worry about the well-being of attachment figures, reluctance to go out alone, nightmares about separation, and physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches related to separation fears.

Navigating separation anxiety can be challenging, but it's essential to remember that help is available. At Lifebulb, we're here to offer support and guidance as you work towards living your brightest life.

Related Blogs