The Signs of Separation Anxiety

Updated October 4, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a mental health condition in which a person experiences excessively anxiety and fear about being separated from home or a loved one. An individual may feel a strong attachment to a particular person or place. The Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)-5 provides characteristics and other information about mental-health disorders, and it places separation anxiety disorder with obsessive-compulsive and other related anxiety disorders.

In most cases, these symptoms last at least four weeks in children and six months or longer in adults. Individuals experiencing separation anxiety may face difficulties in academics, professional life, social life, personal life and other realms, which may prevent healthy functioning in their day-to-day life. In some ways, separation anxiety may mimic drug-withdrawal or depression symptoms. Heredity and other sociological factors may also impact the development of separation anxiety disorder in babies, children, and adults. Studies indicate that approximately 73 percent of those who meet some or all of the DSM-5 requirements for separation anxiety disorder have a family history of the mental-health disorder.

According to the DSM-5 Section 309.21 (F93.0), separation anxiety disorder is recognized when a person exhibits the following characteristics:

Separation Anxiety Can Cause Issues in Your Life And Impact Friendships

  • Recurrent excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or major attachment figures;
  • Persistent and excessive worry about losing significant attachment figures or about possible harm to them, such as illness, injury, disasters or death;
  • Persistent and excessive worry about experiencing an untoward event (e.g., Getting lost, being kidnapped, having an accident, becoming ill) that causes separation from a major attachment figure;
  • Persistent reluctance or refusal to go out, be away from home, go to school, go to work, or elsewhere because of fear of separation;
  • Persistent and excessive fear or reluctance about being alone or without major attachment figures at home or In other settings;
  • Persistent reluctance or refusal to sleep away from home or to go to sleep without being near a major attachment figure;
  • Repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation; and
  • Repeated complaints of physical symptoms (e.g., Headaches, stomachaches, nausea, vomiting) when separation from major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated.”

In 2014, the induction of the new DSM-5 edition began categorizing adults with separation anxiety. In previous editions and practices, separation anxiety only applied for those under age 18. The former long-standing diagnosis for adults with separation anxiety tended to be a panic disorder, generalized anxiety order or agoraphobia. Separation anxiety can affect people of all ages, including babies, children, and adults. It can even affect pets.

The following may affect the risk of developing separation anxiety:

  • Gender
  • You have a family history of separation anxiety disorder or other mental health condition;
  • You have a personal history of another mental health condition
  • You’ve recently experienced the loss of a loved one
  • You’ve recently experienced an abrupt major life change in which one is separated from a loved one
  • You’re in an unhealthy, codependent, romantic relationship.

Separation Anxiety In Babies

Separation anxiety in infancy is considered a common stage in development, although it may alarm parents and caregivers. Babies usually experience distress during the absence of an attachment figure, such as a parent or other caregiver. When an infant is hungry, tired, needs a clean diaper, or experiences another form of distress, they may experience more signs of separation anxiety.

Once the baby develops cognitive skills, such as the acknowledge of permanence, they may notice a parent is gone. The child may be alone in their crib, and because of reliance on the parent for everything, this could cause more cases of separation anxiety. As the baby matures, they may or may not grow out of the separation anxiety from infancy.

Babies may show symptoms of separation anxiety by nine months old, although some babies could show signs as early as four months old. The normal stages of separation anxiety in babies usually end around age 2, when children become more independent and start understanding that their loved ones will be around later – even if they are not in sight at the moment.

Separation Anxiety In Children

Separation anxiety is the most common disorder in children under age 12. If a child has separation anxiety, they may remain attached to parents in an excessive nature. Signs of separation anxiety in children include introduction of physical symptoms (nausea, vomiting, headaches and more), refusal to be in a separate room from their parents, not wanting to spend the night with friends or stay for after-school activities, being “attached at the hip” with an attachment figure and exhibition of noticeable emotional changes (sadness, withdrawn behavior, trouble focusing.)

A child may complain of a headache or stomachache on Sunday night, the night before they return to school. The child may neglect to give parents field-trip information and may not want to ask to spend the night at a friend’s house.

If a toddler has skipped separation anxiety in the infancy stage, they may begin showing signs of the disorder in toddlerhood. While many toddlers (and parents) undergo the “Terrible Twos” stage, separation anxiety could potentially make this stage more challenging. It is common for toddlers to become cranky due to hunger, fatigue, sickness and other factors; furthermore, they also could notice when their parents are away from them.

Preschool-age children may also be anxious upon separation, especially when they attend preschool classes away from their parents for the first few times. If separation-anxiety behaviors and thoughts persist after preschool years and until age 18, then parents could choose to consult a professional about their child or teen’s separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety In Adults

Often, a child who showcases separation anxiety disorder will deal with the same symptoms as an adult. In addition, an adult with separation anxiety may feel incredibly homesick when they are away from their home or a loved one. They may show avoidance behaviors and refuse to go places alone, have nightmares about separation from their attachment figure, have certain agoraphobia, show excessive interest in their spouse’s and children’s whereabouts and more. Also, an adult with separation anxiety disorder may be incredibly envious, mooch off others, feel stuck in their relationships, and be overly involved or strict in their children’s lives.

Separation anxiety in adults may also lead to stressful situations in their relationships. Parents with separation anxiety experience difficulties when their children turn into adolescents and adults. Their children’s increased independence and thoughts of their own may cause distress for parents with separation anxiety. In essence, this could cause tension between parents and their children.

Separation anxiety disorder may also impact romantic relationships as well. Perceived and actual separation from a partner may cause a person to experience symptoms of depression and have higher levels of cortisol, the human stress hormone. Many studies have indicated that monogamous animals often have higher emotional attachment hormones, oxytocin, and vasopressin. Adults may experience withdrawal-like symptoms, irritable behavior, or changes in sleep patterns. While some partners could be understanding, the individual in a relationship with a partner experiencing separation anxiety may rebel or retreat against the potential clingy or controlling behaviors they may exhibit.

According to many researchers, parent/child separation anxiety may set the stage for romantic separation anxiety. Social psychologist Lisa Diamond of the University of Utah states, “We think about parent-child relationships and adult romantic relationships as being fundamentally different, but it really boils down to the same functional purpose: creating a psychological drive to be near the other person, to want to take care of them, and being resistant to being separated from them.”.

Separation Anxiety in Pets

For those with pets, it may be challenging to leave your dog, cat, or other pet at home by themselves. They may give sad glances with their large eyes, begging for their “human” to remain home with them. It is common for dogs to experience separation anxiety disorder. A dog may become agitated or depressed when the dog parent leaves for the day, leading to them potentially using the bathroom in the house, barking, being destructive, pacing back and forth, or trying to escape. A loss in a dog’s life can lead to separation anxiety, as well as schedule changes, or a new home.

While cats are considered to enjoy more alone time, they may also experience separation anxiety from their human family. Some signs of separation anxiety in cats may include incessant meowing when the cat parent leaves, using the bathroom outside of the litter box, not eating when the cat parent is not home, eating too much, too fast, or being destructive with furniture or other items.

If your pet is experiencing separation anxiety, it may be helpful to speak with a veterinarian about these behaviors, as they could mimic other disorders or diseases. Behavioral changes, such as not giving out treats when you return home, could be one way to curb the issue. By giving out treats to your pet on your return, your pet may feel confused or rewarded for their separation anxiety behaviors. It may also help to not make a grand exit or entrance when you come or go, as this may make your pet feel as though it is a big deal you’re leaving. Begin by leaving for small amounts of time and gradually increase the time you’re away to get your pet used to you being gone.

Treatments For Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety Can Cause Issues in Your Life And Impact Friendships

Separation anxiety in children can be remedied by the attachment figures by reassuring children that their parents or other figures will return soon. Create a secure environment for your child and remain calm, practicing control when leaving or preparing to leave your child with separation anxiety.

Other remedies include:

Being consistent with daily schedules, such as drop-off and pick-up times.

Keep your goodbyes short and sweet.

Promise to return – and keep that promise.

Speak in child terms. For example, instead of giving your child a specific pick-up time, say something like, “I will come to get you after you learn your ABCs and have your nap. I will pick you up before dinnertime.”

Build in some apart time in your schedule, starting with smaller chunks of time at the beginning, gradually increasing the amount of time your away.

It may also be important for parents to attempt to be calm when addressing anxiety-driven behavior and reward behaviors in which the child did not show separation behaviors. If that does not work, you may want to seek a professionals help or advice to treat the child’s separation anxiety with cognitive-behavior and exposure therapies, as well as systematic desensitization.

Adults with separation anxiety may receive treatment in myriad ways, including anti-anxiety medications, changes in diet and lifestyle, adaptations in parenting styles and Psychotherapy. Some of the same separation anxiety therapies for children may also help adults, such as systematic desensitization, which the practice of learning to be alone and feel content and calm being alone.

Support groups are also a viable option for adults experiencing separation anxiety. The recent incorporation of adults over age 18 into the separation anxiety DSM-5 has also paved the way for gray areas in treatment. Studies have shown that adults living with separation anxiety disorder have been found to manifest high levels of disability and they tend to show a poor response to conventional psychological and pharmacological treatments.

If you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms of separation anxiety disorder and it’s causing concerns in your day-to-day life, it may be helpful to seek support from a mental healthcare professional. Online therapy, like BetterHelp may be an invaluable tool for those needing guidance or help with separation anxiety or any other mental health concerns. BetterHelp can match you with a licensed mental health professional to help improve your mental health and overall well-being. Reach out for support today.

Below are some commonly asked questions on this topic:

What are 3 signs of separation anxiety?
How do I know if I've got separation anxiety?
How do I fix separation anxiety?
What triggers separation anxiety?
When is separation anxiety at its peak?
What happens if separation anxiety is left untreated?
What age does separation anxiety start?
Is separation anxiety a mental illness?
How long does separation anxiety last?
Why do I get anxious when my partner leaves?

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