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4 min read

How Do I Know If My Child Has Separation Anxiety?

Many parents who try to go out while leaving their child with other caregivers find themselves sighing and explaining over the screams, "Oh, they have separation anxiety." But what exactly is separation anxiety? Is it a normal childhood issue, or is it something more?

In this article, we'll discuss the difference between separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder, how parents can help their child's symptoms, and how this disorder can be treated.

What is the difference between separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder?

Separation anxiety is a fairly common early childhood issue when a baby or toddler demonstrates fear or worry when apart from their usual loved ones. Normal separation anxiety is experienced by nearly all children at some point or another and generally resolves itself around age 2 or 3 as the child develops.

Separation anxiety disorder is a mental health diagnosis that can be seen most commonly in childhood but may present all the way into adulthood for some. Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) causes a person to experience extreme fear when they are separated from their family members or even their primary caregiver.

What is Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children?

Children who have separation anxiety disorder experience worry about their parents or other family members, to the point where it negatively impacts day to day life in the child's school or social life. Your child's anxiety may make it difficult for them to participate in everyday activities and create a great deal of stress in their lives, as well as the lives of their parents or other family members.

You must have separation anxiety disorder diagnosed by a healthcare provider or a mental health professional using criteria from the latest diagnostic and statistical manual (DSM-5).

What Causes Separation Anxiety Disorder in a Child?

There can be different causes of separation anxiety disorder in children. Some of the most common include:

  • Genetics. Some children are more likely to develop symptoms of separation anxiety because of personality markers or family history of anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, or other mental disorders
  • Environmental factors. Children who grow up in a background of poverty, privation, or instability can be at risk for anxiety disorders.
  • Trauma. A traumatic event or a collection of traumatic events in the life of younger children can trigger separation anxiety disorder

In many cases, separation anxiety disorder is caused by a combination of biological and environmental factors.

What Are Signs Your Child May Have Separation Anxiety Disorder?

If you are concerned that your child's symptoms point more toward separation anxiety disorder than a common and transient child's separation anxiety, there are some signs you can look for. If these look familiar to you, you may want to schedule a mental health evaluation with your child's healthcare provider:

  • Seems constantly worried about the health and safety of a parent or family member
  • Vocalizes excessive worry about "something bad happening", like being lost or kidnapped
  • Physical symptoms such as gastrointestinal distress or physical complaints such as muscle aches, headaches, or other problems when away from their parents
  • Difficulty sleeping when not with their family members
  • Refusing to be away from home (sleepovers, visits to friends houses, sports practices, etc.)
  • Frequent nightmares involving separation
  • Temper tantrums any time separation seems imminent

Which Children Are At Risk for Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Risk factors for separation anxiety disorder can include:

  • A family history of separation anxiety or other other mental health concerns
  • Life stressors or trauma triggered by loss such as the death of a close family member, a beloved pet, divorce, or frequent moving
  • Personal temperament or personality markers
  • An environmental trigger that involves displacement, such as war or natural disaster

How Is Separation Anxiety Disorder Treated in Children?

Separation anxiety disorder in children or even adolescents and adults is treatable. In adults, the initial separation anxiety disorder will often develop into another anxiety disorder, like panic disorder.

Cognitive behavioral therapy with a licensed therapist is an effective, evidence-based treatment for both separation anxiety and these other anxiety disorders. Anti-anxiety medication may also be prescribed by your child's healthcare provider in some severe cases to help manage symptoms.

Family therapy can also be a valuable tool to help other family members understand separation anxiety disorder and how to improve the child's quality of life.

Helping a Child With Separation Anxiety or Separation Anxiety Disorder

For normal separation anxiety in very young children, there are some strategies you can use to help manage symptoms. Keep your transitions short--drawing out the separation time can increase negative behaviors.

Toddlers also have a tendency to act out when tired or hungry. When you make plans to go out, try to ensure that the child involved is both fed and well-rested. Finally, be consistent when you make plans away from your child - don't respond to pleas or threats, and don't cancel plans based on their behavior.

To treat separation anxiety disorder, you will need the help of your child's healthcare provider. The symptoms of separation anxiety can be more severe due to intense fear, and may require individual or family therapy to manage these feelings.

Alongside this therapy, there are some tips you can follow to reinforce what their therapist is doing:

  • Encourage age appropriate independence
  • Provide specifics to your child about when you'll be back, using language they understand ("I'll be back after your nap")
  • Build coping skills by practicing being apart, for example, by staying at grandparents house

What Is the Long-Term Outlook for a Child With a Separation Anxiety Disorder?

While you can't always prevent separation anxiety disorder, with a treatment plan, people with separation anxiety have a good outlook in the long term. If left untreated, symptoms of separation anxiety can develop into a related mental health problem like social anxiety or panic disorder.

But with treatment like CBT and (in some cases) antidepressant or antianxiety medicine, most children with social anxiety disorder can manage their symptoms and lead a vibrant and healthy social life.

Therapy for Child Separation Anxiety in Brooklyn: Williamsburg Therapy Group

If you think your child may have separation anxiety, you should book an appointment with a licensed child therapist.

Williamsburg Therapy Group is proud to be home to one of Brooklyn's best child therapy departments. Give us a call, and our patient coordinator will set you up with the right doctoral-level Brooklyn child therapist for you.

Book a Therapy Session in Brooklyn Today

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