Anxiety in children, specifically separation anxiety, is common.1 One of the main symptoms is fear or nervousness associated with being separated from primary caregivers. Children with separation anxiety may display behavioral symptoms, but somatic symptoms like stomach aches, headaches, nausea, and sleep disturbances can occur as well.2
Signs of Separation Anxiety Disorder In Children
Children exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety disorder through behavioral changes like clinginess, school absences, temper tantrums, crying, or changes in speech.3 They may also experience physical symptoms similar to adults with anxiety, including heart palpitations, sweaty palms, and irritability. Family members and school personnel are often the first to notice these signs of separation anxiety in children.
The signs of separation anxiety are subjective and can be difficult to observe. Therefore, it is important for parents, caregivers, and personnel in school settings to pay close attention to signs that may be abnormal behavior in children. Also, it is important to note that the signs of separation anxiety in children may look similar to other disorders in children.
Here are signs a child may display if they’re experiencing separation anxiety:
- Avoiding a situation, place, or thing
- Clinging to loved ones when leaving them
- Temper tantrums
- Refusal to leave the home
- Fear of being alone at night
- Fear of harm to loved ones
Normal Separation Anxiety vs. Separation Anxiety Disorder
Stress is common in children who are leaving their primary caregivers for the first time. Normal instances of separation anxiety often take place when children go to childcare or school for the first time. As determined by the DSM-V, children must experience a minimum of one month of symptoms to be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. The developmental level of the child must be taken into consideration as well.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety In Children
Symptoms in children experiencing separation anxiety are subjective and can go unnoticed or undetected depending on the child’s age, developmental level, and ability to communicate effectively. They include stomach aches, headaches, and sleep disturbances.
Symptoms of separation anxiety in children include:
- Difficulty expressing emotions
- Sleep disturbances
- Stomach aches
Causes & Triggers of Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children
Causes and triggers of separation anxiety disorder in children vary, but may be related to genetics. Children are also extremely observant and can pick up and learn anxious tendencies from their parents and caregivers. Another trigger could be life changes that cause a child to be fearful and/or anxious.
Seven common triggers of separation anxiety in children include:
- Abuse (physical, verbal, or neglect)
- Changes in the child’s environment
- Conflict among parents/caregivers
- Developmental changes
- Divorce/separation of parents, not being told about the divorce
- Loss of a loved one (e.g., death or incarceration)
- Overprotective parents/caregivers
Treatment of Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children
If a parent or caregiver is noticing signs and symptoms of separation anxiety that are not improving, they should seek out mental health support from someone with expertise in child anxiety disorders. Depending on symptoms, separation anxiety disorder can be treated by therapeutic services, behavioral interventions, and in some cases, medication.1
Therapy for separation anxiety is provided by a mental health professional, such as a licensed counselor, social worker, or psychologist. Depending on the diagnosis, treatment often includes cognitive-behavioral techniques and other developmentally appropriate techniques for children and adolescents.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) involves identifying, understanding, challenging, and changing irrational thoughts. The main goal is to help people change behaviors that don’t serve them. They’re often charged with taking ownership and becoming actively involved in the therapeutic process with the support of their therapist.4
Play therapy uses the therapeutic powers of play to help clients (typically children) prevent or resolve psychosocial difficulties and achieve optimal growth and development.5 Mental health providers use this form of therapy, which may involve toys or role play, to encourage children to open up about their fears, anxieties, and/or stressors in a safe space. Ultimately, based on observations of the child’s play, the therapist can help them cope with challenges.
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy
In regard to child separation anxiety, therapists should assess whether the child or adolescent may have been exposed to traumatic events. If trauma is a factor, trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) is a therapeutic option. The number of sessions required for this evidence-based treatment range from 8-25. It combines psychoeducation and cognitive techniques to teach children and parents/caregivers how to express themselves, learn cognitive coping skills to deal with stressors, develop relaxation skills, create and process trauma narratives, and manage behaviors that could be detrimental to outcomes.6
Parents and caregivers should consult with their child’s pediatrician or a child psychiatrist if they believe their child might require medication to treat their separation anxiety. Generally, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) are used first to treat anxiety and related disorders.7 If a child is prescribed medication, there should be an age-appropriate discussion with a parent/caregiver explaining possible side effects. Rarely would medication be prescribed to an anxious child without them also working with a therapist.
Lifestyle changes alone should not be the only method of treatment for separation anxiety disorder, but they can help teach healthy coping strategies. A primary goal in determining helpful lifestyle changes to make is to identify triggers that may cause the child to become anxious or nervous.
The following lifestyle changes may be beneficial for a child with separation anxiety:
- Encourage children to take a break when they need to decompress or are feeling overwhelmed
- Ensure that children get enough sleep for their age
- Teach children relaxation techniques appropriate for their developmental level (e.g., yoga strategies, deep breathing techniques, positive visualization, positive affirmations)
- Integrate exercise into children’s daily routines
- Practice eating healthy foods that refuel them<
- Help them reframe irrational thoughts about places, people, or things that are not true
- Assist children in identifying people, places, or things that may be triggers to their stress and/or anxiety
- Teach children how to identify their emotions and talk about what they’re feeling
Intended Treatment Outcome & Timeline
The effectiveness of therapy and medication in conjunction with certain lifestyle changes will vary based on many factors.
Factors that may impact the outcome and timeline of treatment include:
- When the individual first noticed symptoms
- What triggered those symptoms
- The severity of symptoms
- Whether the onset of symptoms is new or returning
- Recently occurring life changes and events
- Additional medical or mental health concerns of the child
- Family history of mental health diagnoses
How to Get Help For Your Child With Separation Anxiety Disorder
If separation anxiety is holding your child back from participating in their normal routine, seek out help from a mental health professional. Note that if it is causing additional stress for parents/caregivers, it is important to get the help that supports both the child and adult. First, visit the child’s pediatrician to assess symptoms and ensure that what he/she is experiencing is not a physical or medical illness. Once potential physical causes are addressed, explore available mental health services for children.
Many pediatricians and school counselors can provide contact information for mental health providers that specialize in anxiety-related concerns for children. You might also use an online directory to access a list of providers that are covered by your insurance company.
Below are factors to consider when selecting someone to support your child:
- Check to see if the therapist is accepting new clients
- Make sure that the mental health provider focuses on children’s mental health
- Encourage collaboration with the child’s therapist and school personnel (e.g,. school counselor, teachers, or administrators)
- Ask if the therapist accepts the insurance plan that you carry or offers affordable cash payment options
Practical Ways to Help Your Child Cope With Separation Anxiety
There are many ways to help your child cope with the symptoms of separation anxiety. In some cases, it can be challenging and ultimately may cause parents/caregivers additional stress.
Here are practical ways to help your child cope with separation anxiety:
- Have open conversation: It is important for parents and caregivers, who often function as a safe space for children, to ask about stressors and situations that may be causing anxiety. You can also share how your day was, including healthy ways that you coped with stress.
- Observe triggers that may cause additional stress: Children may not always have the vocabulary to express the triggers or concerns that cause them additional stress. As a parent or caregiver, pay close attention to any changes in your child’s normal patterns and ask questions to encourage them to share.
- Model healthy ways of coping: A healthy way to teach children positive coping strategies is to be a role model. For example, talk to your child about ways you take time to relax when you are stressed or overwhelmed.
- Observe your behaviors as a parent: It is key for parents/caregivers to observe their own behaviors and ensure that they are not causing additional stress. Stress-inducing behavior can include yelling, crying, or getting easily agitated.
Childhood Separation Anxiety Statistics & Resources
There are various statistics, organizations, books, and websites to give insight and information to help parents and caregivers support anxious children. Regardless of your circumstances and experience with separation anxiety, remember that you are not alone.
Here are a few statistics on separation anxiety in children:
- The prevalence rate of Separation Anxiety is 4% in children and 1.6% in adolescents.8
- In 2016, about 4.4 million children in the United States of America were experiencing some type of anxiety problem.9
- Approximately 50% of people who are suffering from anxiety may also be impacted by depressive disorder.10
- According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health diagnoses. However, only 36.9% of people suffering from symptoms receive treatment.10
For Further Reading
If you are looking for more help for your child, these resources may be a good place to start: