When a child is young, it’s natural for them to become alarmed, frightened or upset when they lose sight of their parents. Separation anxiety is a natural response in babies and toddlers up to around age 3. Normally, this behavior fades over time, but in rare cases, older children and even teens and adults can experience it. When being apart from someone close causes enough stress to interfere with daily life, it may be classified as separation anxiety disorder.
Originally considered a childhood disorder, we now know that separation anxiety can affect people at any age. People who have it become extremely distressed when they have to leave the company of someone they have a strong emotional attachment to. They often spend excessive amounts of time worrying about the possibility of being alone or abandoned.
Separation anxiety disorder is still not fully understood. However, the latest facts and statistics about separation anxiety disorder reveal who grapples with it and what available treatment options are most effective
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Prevalence of Separation Anxiety
The prevalence of separation anxiety disorder may be significantly higher than originally thought. Only recently has separation anxiety been considered a disorder in its own right, rather than a symptom of another condition. Also, doctors used to think only children could have the condition, but now recognize that it can also affect adolescents and adults.
The prevalence of separation anxiety varies by age group, being most common in children. It affects males and females equally.
Separation Anxiety in Children
Though most children outgrow separation anxiety as toddlers, separation anxiety is still considered a normal trait in children up to the age of 6. Children 7 years old or older who show signs of being distressed when apart from their caregivers may be diagnosed with separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety is the most common type of anxiety disorder in children. It accounts for half of all referrals for mental health treatment for anxiety in children. Approximately 4% of children ages 7–11 have the disorder. It affects girls and boys at the same rate. Between 50–75% of children with separation anxiety come from homes with a low socioeconomic status.
Children with the disorder often cling to their parents, caregivers or siblings, refusing to leave their side. They may show physical signs of anxiety such as headaches, upset stomach and trouble focusing in school. About 75% of them refuse to attend school.
Separation Anxiety in Adolescents
Separation anxiety is much less common in teenagers than in younger children. About 1.6 % of adolescents have the disorder. It’s more common among younger teens; separation anxiety occurs in about 3.9% of adolescents aged 12–14 and only in about 1.3% of those aged 14–16.
Separation Anxiety in Adults
Separation anxiety is not as well studied in adults as in children. Since its recognition as an adult disorder, estimates of the prevalence of separation anxiety have varied. Some studies have estimated that about 0.9–1.9% of adults have a separation anxiety disorder, while others estimate that it impacts around 6.6% of adults. Separation anxiety disorder is more common among people who have experienced a traumatic event.
Sometimes parents, especially new mothers, develop separation anxiety around their children, particularly in cases where the mother experiences a stressful pregnancy.
Separation Anxiety and Co-Occurring Disorders
Separation anxiety often co-occurs with other mental health disorders. In particular, children with a separation anxiety disorder are at a higher risk for developing other anxiety or depressive disorders later in life. Around 60% of children with separation anxiety also have another anxiety disorder while 30% have two or more others, and one-third also have depression.
Conditions which commonly co-occur with separation anxiety disorder include:
- Panic disorder
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Asperger’s or autism spectrum disorder
- Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder
- Substance use disorders
Separation Anxiety Treatment and Outlook
In mild cases, no medical treatment is needed for separation anxiety disorder. However, doctors may still recommend some counseling to anyone with a separation anxiety diagnosis. Counseling can be helpful to reduce feelings of anxiety.
Usually, treatment involves psychotherapy, or “talk therapy” sessions with a trained psychologist or psychiatrist. Cognitive behavioral therapy can be particularly helpful. In this type of therapy, patients receive training to redirect their mind away from worry-causing thoughts and learn healthy coping strategies for dealing with situations that cause them stress. In severe cases of separation anxiety disorder, an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication may be prescribed.
The prognosis of separation anxiety disorder is generally favorable. If left untreated, an estimated 36.1% of childhood cases continue into adulthood. However, with proper treatment, most children do outgrow the condition. While the outlook is good for children, treatment may be more difficult for adults because it is often accompanied by another severe emotional disorder.
Those suffering from a separation anxiety disorder as well as a substance use disorder are encouraged to contact The Recovery Village. Our facilities offer comprehensive treatment for co-occurring disorders. Reach out to a representative today for more information.
Ehrenreich JT, Santucci LC, Weiner CL. “Separation anxiety disorder in youth: Phenomenology, assessment, and treatment.” Psicol Conductual, January 1, 2008. Accessed April 22, 2019.
Masi G, Mucci M, Millepiedi S. “Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children and Adolescents.” CNS Drugs, February 2001. Accessed April 22, 2019.
Rhoads JC, Donnelly CL. “Anxiety Disorders of Childhood and Adolescence.” Pediatric Psychiatry Network. Accessed April 22, 2019.
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