Separation anxiety disorder is a mental health condition that deserves high-quality care. Learn the causes and symptoms of this condition to help yourself or a friend.

Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood, but it can be unsettling, even for adults. This fear or distress occurs when the person thinks about separating from a familiar situation or loved ones.

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is characterized by stress and fear that occurs when a person is separated from a particular person, or even an object, which they have become attached to. Many people associate separation anxiety with children. However, adults can also experience the condition. A person with separation anxiety usually develops extreme anxiety when faced with the idea of separation.

Separation Anxiety Symptoms

Separation anxiety disorder is diagnosed when symptoms are excessive, considering the age of the person. The symptoms typically cause significant distress in daily functioning. Common separation anxiety symptoms may include:

  • Recurrent and excessive anguish about being away from loved ones
  • Excessive fear of losing a loved one to an illness or a disaster
  • Constant worry that something bad will happen, like getting lost or kidnapped
  • Refusing to be away from home
  • Not wanting to be home alone
  • Unwillingness or refusal to sleep away from home
  • Repeated nightmares about separation

A person may also experience physical symptoms related to anxiety including:

  • Nausea or stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • A sore throat

Separation anxiety disorder may be linked to panic disorder and panic attacks. Repeated incidents of intense anxiety and fear may cause panic attacks within minutes.

Separation Anxiety in Children

A child with separation anxiety may have an unrealistic fear of something bad happening to their parent or caregiver if the child leaves. They may also live with the worry that something bad will happen to them if they leave their parent or caregiver.

Some other common symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:

  • Refusal to go to school to stay with the caregiver
  • Refusing to sleep without the caregiver nearby
  • Complaints of headaches and stomach aches, especially on school days
  • Repeated temper tantrums or pleading
  • Fear of being alone
  • Nightmares about being separated
  • Bed wetting

Separation Anxiety in Adults

Adults who live with the disorder experience high levels of anxiety, including possible panic attacks, when loved ones are out of reach. Social anxiety may cause a person to avoid people, or have difficulty concentrating when they are away from loved ones. For parents who experience separation from their children, the disorder can lead to strict, over-involved parenting. In relationships, a person who has separation anxiety may be overbearing and clingy.

Common symptoms of separation anxiety in adults include:

  • Unrealistic fears that loved ones will be fatally injured
  • Refusal to leave the loved one’s side
  • Trouble sleeping away from a loved one
  • Depression or anxiety attacks related to fears

Physical aches and pains, headaches, and diarrhea may also be associated with separation anxiety disorder in adults.

Causes of Separation Anxiety

Genetics may affect the development of separation anxiety. People can inherit the tendency to be anxious from their parents. However, anxiety and fear may also be learned from others who frequently display increased anxiety around the child. Children whose parents are over-protective may be more prone to separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety disorder can be triggered by stress that results in separation from a loved one or a traumatic experience.

Diagnosing Separation Anxiety

Diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder may be difficult if a child is going through a normal stage of development. Being separated from a parent may cause young children to cry, as a normal response. After considering the age-appropriate separation behavior and ruling out any medical conditions, the patient may be referred to a mental health professional with expertise in treating anxiety disorders.

To help diagnose separation anxiety disorder, the mental health professional will likely perform a psychological evaluation that addresses a person’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Separation anxiety disorder may co-occur with other mental health problems. The Recovery Village has staff with experience working with patients with co-occurring disorders such as separation anxiety and panic disorder.

Who Is at Risk for Separation Anxiety?

People with separation anxiety often have other co-existing conditions, like social phobias, panic disorders or agoraphobia. Other risk factors for separation anxiety include:

  • Childhood hardship, such as the death of a family member
  • Experiencing traumatic events at any point in life, including abuse
  • A family history of anxiety disorders

Separation anxiety typically begins in childhood, though it may continue into the teenage years and adulthood. Sometimes a significant life change, like a divorce or a child leaving for college, can cause a person to develop adult separation anxiety.

Statistics on Separation Anxiety

Studies have determined that separation anxiety disorder typically begins during childhood, however, its symptoms can carry on into adulthood. According to Psychology Today, separation anxiety is the most commonly observed anxiety disorder in children under the age of 12.

Additionally, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM–5) states that separation anxiety disorder affects up to 1.9 percent of American adults. According to The American Journal of Psychiatry, approximately 43.1 percent of people who experience separation disorder develop the condition after 18 years of age.

Separation Anxiety and Substance Abuse

Substance abuse is frequently a problem for people who struggle with separation anxiety. Alcohol or drugs may be used to calm their fears or go to sleep. Unfortunately, the substance used can cause even greater problems for the person with the disorder. Some of these problems include:

  • Increasing the severity of the anxiety
  • Causing long-term health problems, including addiction
  • Hindrance of person’s ability to function and have positive relationships

Separation Anxiety Treatment

Psychotherapy and medication are usually used to treat separation anxiety disorder. Psychotherapy involves talking with a therapist or counselor to reduce separation anxiety symptoms.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective form of psychotherapy for separation anxiety as well as for other anxiety disorders. During therapy, the patient can learn how to face and manage fears about separation and uncertainty. Sometimes a combination of medication with therapy may be helpful if symptoms are severe. Antidepressants may be prescribed to help the client deal with the emotional symptoms of separation anxiety.

If you think you or a loved one may have separation anxiety, contact a treatment facility today. The Recovery Village has locations across the country, staffed with mental health professionals who have experience working with patients who have co-existing disorders.

The Recovery Village can provide comprehensive drug and alcohol addiction treatment and care for co-occurring mental health conditions like separation anxiety. Individuals who struggle with separation anxiety symptoms can receive compassionate treatment from one of the facilities located across the country. To learn more, call The Recovery Village today to speak with a representative.

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Editor – Camille Renzoni
Cami Renzoni is a creative writer and editor for The Recovery Village. As an advocate for behavioral health, Cami is certified in mental health first aid and encourages people who face substance use disorders to ask for the help they deserve. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Krisi Herron, LCDC
Krisi Herron is an Adjunct Psychology Professor, a Licensed Chemical Dependency Counselor and a freelance writer who contributes to several mental health blogs. Read more

Milrod, Barbara. “Childhood Separation Anxiety and the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Adult Anxiety.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, 2014. Accessed December 2018.

Stone, Lisanne L. et. al. “Relations Between Parental and Child Sep[…]sychological Control.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 2015. Accessed December 2018.

Wehry AM, et. al. “Assessment and treatment of anxiety diso[…]ren and adolescents.” U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, 2015. Accessed December 2018.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.