Learning How To Cope With Separation Anxiety

Updated August 26, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Being a parent is tough and it can be even tougher to see your child go through a hard time. While some kids are perfectly fine being away from their parents, other children can wind up developing what is called separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety is a developmental stage that is normal for infants and toddlers. For the most part, kids are going to grow out of having separation anxiety by the age of three. Some kids have issues for longer periods of time than this, but it shouldn’t be a major issue for too long. That doesn’t make it easier to deal with, though.

Many parents have a very difficult time coping with separation anxiety disorder. This problem could even make you feel like you can’t leave the house because your child might experience serious distress due to being separated from you for even a very short period of time. It can make them not want to leave home to go to school or play with friends. You can deal with this issue in various ways, but sometimes the most difficult part is feeling guilty for making your child cry. Children who experience separation anxiety can become incredibly emotional and it’s tough to watch. How can you cope with separation anxiety disorder and what should you do in this situation?

When Children Can’t Cope with Parents Leaving

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Learn How To Cope With Feelings Of Separation Anxiety

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), separation anxiety disorder manifests in the following symptoms, at least three of which are necessary to receive a diagnosis:

  • Excessive distress at the prospect of being apart from home or a person to whom they’re attached
  • Excessive worry regarding the possibility of something bad happening to the person to whom they’re attached
  • Excessive worry about something bad happening to themselves that would separate them from a person to whom they’re attached
  • Consistent desire to avoid separation by staying at home
  • Fear of being home without a person to whom they’re attached
  • Persistent desire to avoid sleeping away from a person to whom they’re attached
  • Nightmares about being separated
  • Physical symptoms (e.g., vomiting, headaches, stomach pain)

It’s very rough when your child’s symptoms make it hard for them to cope with you leaving the house. Some parents experience the impact of separation anxiety disorder when they have to leave for work in the morning or go do normal activities like run errands. You have to go, but your young toddler simply doesn’t understand why you’re leaving them. A child under three years old developing separation anxiety is fairly normal and it’s something that they will grow out of. You still might notice your heart breaking a little bit each time your child cries when you try to leave the room, but you can get through this time.

There are some things that you can do to make your life and your child’s life easier. For example, you can start practicing separation to get your child used to the idea of being away from you sometimes. This could mean sending your child to spend time with grandparents for an hour or so. It could also mean taking turns with the other parent or having your child practice playing by themselves.

You’ll also have an easier time going about your day if you simply leave the house without making it a big deal. Some people make the mistake of going through a big goodbye ritual and this triggers the separation anxiety disorder to become worse. When the child starts to realize that you’re leaving, it’s going to be tougher for them to cope with it. If you just make it normal to leave and then come back, then your child might not have such severe separation anxiety disorder issues.

When Separation Anxiety Disorder Becomes a Big Problem for Kids

Separation anxiety is a common occurrence in early childhood; if your child experiences separation anxiety disorder problems when they’re older, however, then that is problematic. Some kids might have a separation anxiety disorder for a little bit longer than usual, but a child who is six or seven shouldn’t normally be having issues. If your child’s issues go beyond what is normal for their developmental stage, then it might be time to seek professional help. Find a professional (a therapist, school counselor, etc.) who can help you with an anxiety disorder in children.

Children who experience separation anxiety might need therapy of some kind to get through problems that they’re dealing with. They might have some extreme fear that has been instilled in them for a reason that isn’t apparent to you. It could be that they have a fear of losing you somehow. Maybe they’re scared that something bad will happen to them at school. Some children might develop more severe cases of separation anxiety due to having seen their parents go through a divorce. There are many possibilities, and it would be best to work things out with a school counselor or other mental health professional who understands separation anxiety disorder and can get to the root of your child’s fear of separation.

Just know that children with separation anxiety can get better over time. This doesn’t have to become the norm for your household, and you can get to the point where your child feels better about things. It’s going to be tough on you as a parent to see your child feel distress and go through difficult emotional situations. Separation anxiety disorder will make you feel terrible at certain points in time, but you’ll have to make the right decisions for your kid. Remember that this isn’t an issue that needs to be dealt with alone and that professional help is available. With the proper support, you can help your child feel safer without their attachment figure.

Coping with Parental Guilt

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Coping with parental guilt is sometimes the toughest part of dealing with a normal separation anxiety disorder. If you just hate seeing your child get upset when they have to go to school or when you walk out the door, then know that you’re not alone. Many parents face this problem and they all have their own ways of coping with a child’s anxiety. You might need to vent to your friends about what is going on to alleviate your own stress. There are even support groups for parents of children who have anxiety problems. Sometimes, focusing on positive activities will help to boost your mental health. Try to ensure that you’re getting enough exercise and that you’re eating healthy meals. If you do that, along with getting enough sleep at night, then you’ll at least be equipped to deal with emotional situations properly.

Finally, you could talk to someone else who has been through the same thing. Your parents might have dealt with a separation anxiety disorder when you were younger. Some of your friends who have older kids might have some sound advice to give about separation anxiety disorder as well. Even just talking about things candidly might help you to deal with the situation better, so don’t hesitate to reach out to your support system if you need a little help.

Separation Anxiety Disorder In Adults

In rare cases, teenagers and adults can also be diagnosed with a separation anxiety disorder. This usually occurs due to some type of traumatic event. For example, someone could be faced with the death of a loved one and will have a very tough time accepting it. This could cause them to have a separation anxiety disorder and it could cause some to throw their life into upheaval. It’s possible to get through adult separation anxiety and come out the other end okay. It’s just important to know that it takes time and that the symptoms can be quite problematic.

Adults with separation anxiety disorder will often experience extreme stress when they’re forced to be away from home or from a specific loved one. You might also experience extreme worry about losing a parent or another loved one. When you’re experiencing separation anxiety disorder, the excessive fear that you’re experiencing isn’t necessarily going to be rational. You might be overly worried that your romantic partner will get in a car accident on the way to work or you could convince yourself that your parents are going to pass away if you don’t constantly check on them.

As mentioned earlier, separation anxiety in adults or teenagers isn’t common. This usually happens when something occurs in someone’s life to trigger it. A traumatic event could cause someone to start excessively worrying about losing more people and this could have a domino effect. Some people experience nightmares about separation and physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches could also be present. Separation anxiety disorder can manifest in many ways.

Coping with Separation Anxiety Disorder as an Adult

Coping with a separation anxiety disorder as an adult will involve improving your mental health. This disorder is something that can be treated in much the same way as depression or other types of anxiety. Separation anxiety and other anxiety disorders might be problematic, but you can reduce anxiety symptoms over time. You’ll likely want to talk to your doctor or another mental health professional to get professional medical advice and/or a diagnosis; and you should also consider making some changes in your daily life. Sometimes positive lifestyle changes—such as physical activity, a balanced diet, and a regular sleep schedule—can help you feel better mentally, and your separation anxiety disorder will be substantially less severe as a result. Don’t be embarrassed if you receive the medical news that you’re living with separation anxiety disorder—it’s something that can be treated and there is a reason that you feel like you do.

Therapy Can Help

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Learn How To Cope With Feelings Of Separation Anxiety

It might be helpful to seek out professional treatment from a mental health provider if you’re really having issues. Meeting with a therapist could go one of two ways. You might need therapy because you’re very stressed out due to the separation anxiety disorder that you’re experiencing. Conversely, some people seek therapy for their children when they’re not growing out of the separation anxiety disorder phase. A school counselor or other mental health professional may be able to get to the root of your child’s fear and help them create healthier attachments.

Peer-reviewed studies have shown that therapy can help children with the anxious thoughts and other symptoms associated with separation anxiety disorder. A meta-analysis of clinical trials on therapy for anxiety disorders in children found that it is an effective treatment method. And, according to researchers conducting a systematic review of clinical trials on the efficacy of therapy when addressing symptoms of social anxiety disorder in children, cognitive behavioral therapy is the “golden standard” for treatment. Either way, you should know that therapists can help you to get through this trying time. You don’t have to face things alone and therapists are used to helping people with complex issues like this.

Therapists have many coping skills that they can teach you that will make dealing with separation anxiety disorder or similar mental health conditions more practical. You can learn to help your child if they’re experiencing symptoms of separation anxiety disorder such as excessive worry or even physical complaints. Therapy is great for treating children experiencing an anxiety disorder or a similar mental health concern, like ADHD or depression. If you’re the one who needs assistance, then the therapist will be there for you, too. This type of anxiety is treated in very similar ways to other types of anxiety. You can learn about how to cope with separation anxiety disorder while talking through issues that might be exacerbating your anxiety symptoms.

You can choose to go see a therapist in person or you could look into online therapy options. Online therapy is a convenient way to get treatment because you can talk to a mental health professional from the comfort of home. For some people with separation anxiety disorder, it’s the most practical solution. Simply think about your situation and make whatever choice is going to be the most sensible for you and your family members. You can cope with a separation anxiety disorder diagnosis or other mental health concerns, and you can get back to feeling like your old self again. It might take time to completely alleviate the symptoms of separation anxiety, but you will be able to get there with the help of compassionate professionals. 

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