Separation Anxiety: Understanding The Triggers And Risk Factors

Separation anxiety is tough, whether it’s you or your child who’s struggling with the disorder. But, there are steps that you can take to help manage the situation.

The first of these steps is understanding the causes, triggers, and risk factors associated with separation anxiety so you can get your head around how it might start and what you can do to improve it.

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What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder that can occur in children, adults, and even pets.

This disorder is characterized by a feeling of dread or worry when you are apart from a loved one or when you know that you are about to be separated from a loved one.

Some of the questions relating to this disorder are what are its causes and why it is often seen alongside other anxiety disorders.

Symptoms of separation anxiety

Separation anxiety can look a little different from person to person, but it typically centers around feelings of panic, anxiety, and worry during or while anticipating a period of separation from a loved one.

While it is normal to feel a little sad when you leave someone you love and enjoy being around, the feelings of distress for people with separation anxiety are excessive and cause a significant interruption to their ability to get through their day.

Common symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • Recurring and excessive feelings of distress when you anticipate being away from a loved one or your home

  • Constant and excessive worry that a loved one will die

  • Constant and excessive worry that something bad will happen to you (e.g., kidnapping, which would result in separation from a loved one)

  • Refusal to leave home to avoid separation or a disastrous event

  • Refusal to be home alone without a loved one present

  • Repetitive nightmares about separation or disaster scenarios

  • Reluctance to leave home without your loved one nearby

  • Experiencing stomachaches and headaches when you anticipate separation from a loved one 

Causes of separation anxiety

We don’t know exactly what enables one person to handle a separation scenario with ease and another person to develop separation anxiety, but we do know that there are potential factors that can increase the chances of someone experiencing separation anxiety triggers.

Potential triggers for separation anxiety include:

  • A stressful life event: Trauma can result in a person or child latching on to a loved one for safety and security. Divorce, death, or illness/injury is a trigger that is often seen in people with separation anxiety issues.

  • Environmental change: Anxiety can be brought on by a range of factors, but moving house, schools, or jobs can be events that lead to a need for stability and reliance on loved ones to soothe anxiety.

  • Unhealthy relationship attachments: Whether in childhood or adulthood, unhealthy attachment bonds can lead to dependency and the development of separation anxiety. This could include overprotective parenting, coercive controlling relationships, or isolated friendships.

It’s also important to keep in mind that genetics may play an important role in the development of separation anxiety. If you were a clingy and anxious child, for example, then that could play a factor in your child potentially also developing separation anxiety.

Who is most at risk of experiencing separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety may seem random, but some risk factors can help identify who is more likely to develop it.

To start with, if you experienced separation anxiety as a child, then it is more likely to reoccur in your adult life. Overbearing parents and traumatic events may also increase your risk of developing separation anxiety.

If you experience other mental health conditions, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, or generalized/social anxiety disorder, you may also be at higher risk than the general population.

Separation anxiety in children

The manifestations of separation anxiety in childhood are different in adulthood. Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development, with most children outgrowing this by around age three.

It is also normal for children to go through adjustments, and they may have difficulty being away from their parents, for example, the first time they have a sleepover. Generally, with support, children will progress through these stages of independence.

If you are concerned that your child's separation anxiety is prolonged or starts to impact their ability to go to school or do other things, your child may have a separation anxiety disorder.

Typical symptoms of separation anxiety in children include:

  • Refusal to go to school 

  • Crying at preschool/school drop-offs 

  • Clinginess 

  • Reluctance to attend sleepovers or playdates where parents/caregivers aren’t present

  • Wanting to sleep in parent/caregivers bed

  • Complaints of feeling ill before a parent/caregiver is about to be separated from them

Separation anxiety in adults

Adults experience many of the same separation anxiety symptoms that children do, except that these emotions tend to be directed towards a loved one (spouse, child, friend, or roommate) rather than just a parent or caregiver. 

Another difference between separation anxiety in children and adults is how the disorder can impact your life. Separation anxiety in children can be managed with care from parents and teachers, but separation anxiety in adults is more likely to have a negative impact on everyday tasks – such as your personal, professional, and social life. 

How to determine whether you or your child has separation anxiety

So how can you figure out if you, your child, or someone is suffering from separation anxiety? If you or someone you know is demonstrating some of the symptoms of separation anxiety, you might want to consider going to your doctor or psychiatrist for a proper diagnosis. 

Once you have sought a medical opinion, your doctor will use the separation anxiety diagnostic criteria to determine whether or not you have such disorder. The criteria for diagnosis include:

  • Excessive and inappropriate fear and anxiety of separation from loved ones 

  • Separation anxiety symptoms that have been present for at least four weeks in children and adolescents and at least six months in adults

  • Severe symptoms that affect daily responsibilities and the patient’s ability to socialize 

  • Symptoms do not better fit another disorder

Separation anxiety disorder can be tricky to diagnose. You may need several sessions with your doctor or psychiatrist to determine the exact cause of your anxiety and fear before a diagnosis is confirmed. 

Treatment options

It can be a daunting prospect to simultaneously deal with your separation anxiety and parenting a child with separation anxiety, so what are your treatment options?

The good news is that several well-established treatment options are available for people suffering from separation anxiety. It is important to speak to your doctor early about treatment options as treating separation anxiety in its early stages can improve outcomes. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy programs¹ have been shown to improve the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder. 

CBT treatment programs focus on childhood separation anxiety and consist of weekly sessions with the child and the parents. 

During this time, both the child and the parent are educated about anxiety and given tools to learn how to identify irrational behavior and how to best cope with it. 

Other psychotherapies

Other psychotherapies, such as dialectical behavioral therapy, can also be effective at reducing anxiety² levels. 

Dialectical behavioral therapy is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy that uses mindfulness and analytic thinking to emphasize that patients accept experiences as they are. 

Combined approach

At times your doctor may recommend a combined approach of psychotherapy and medications

Anti-anxiety medications

Anti-anxiety medications like SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) are the recommended first-line medication option for pediatric anxiety and are an established anti-anxiety treatment for adults. 

Talk to your doctor about whether SSRIs might be the right treatment to help you or your child manage their separation anxiety.

How to help children with separation anxiety

Aside from medication and therapy, there are also other things that you can do to help your child manage their separation anxiety:

  • The first thing you should do is learn about separation anxiety and how it makes your child feel. This will help you understand that your child’s actions are coming from a place of fear. Listen to your child and allow them to talk through their fear. This will help you to understand the source of your child’s anxiety and help you talk your child through it.

  • Be prepared for separation anxiety. If you know that your child suffers from separation anxiety, you can help plan for future separation events to make them a little easier. For example, you might stay for a coffee at a playdate before leaving to help ease your child into the new environment. You may also plan to have the parent who your child separates from more easily do school drop-offs.

  • Keep calm. It can be especially stressful for a parent when their child is experiencing separation anxiety, but it’s essential to keep your cool. If you project an image of calm, your child is more likely to pick up on your energy and start to relax.

  • Praise good behavior. Whenever your child overcomes their social anxiety (e.g., does school drop off without an issue, goes to bed easily, or asks to play with a friend), then praise them and reinforce this behavior. You can also encourage your child’s involvement in group activities, whether social, sport, or academic. 

The lowdown

Separation anxiety can be a stressful condition to manage and can start to manifest at any time for various reasons. Whether separation anxiety begins in childhood or adulthood, there are many triggers that you can look out for to help anticipate and prevent separation anxiety. 

If your separation anxiety is severe or impacting your life, then you may want to talk to your doctor about treatment options.

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