The Signs of Separation Anxiety

Updated December 9, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Separation anxiety disorder is an exaggeration of otherwise normal anxieties and worries about being apart from someone you are attached to. It is the most common anxiety disorder in early childhood. Some separation anxiety is expected in early childhood, but it can become problematic if it is overly intense or the age and context are inappropriate. 

Earlier editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders limited separation anxiety disorder to children and adolescents, but in 2013, the fifth edition expanded the diagnosis to adulthood. There are many differences between separation anxiety in children and adults, but one of the most significant is who the attachment figures are. Children may experience symptoms when separated from their parents and caregivers; for adults, it’s usually their children, spouses, or romantic partners.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety Can Significantly Impact Your Relationships

The symptoms of separation anxiety vary widely between adults and children. For a diagnosis of separation disorder, symptoms must impair everyday activities. Here are some of the signs that someone with this condition may exhibit:

  • Anxiety or distress in anticipation of an attachment figure leaving

  • Excessive worrying about something terrible happening to the attachment figure to prevent them from returning

  • Fear of getting lost or being kidnapped

  • Fear of being away from attachment figure when going to school or sleeping away from home

  • Fear of being home alone

  • Avoiding being alone

  • Refusing to attend school

  • Nightmares centering on the theme of separation

  • Bedwetting

  • Poor concentration

  • Poor social interactions

  • Social isolation

  • Poor academic performance

  • Irritability

In most cases, symptoms last at least four weeks in children, but they can last much longer in adults. Individuals experiencing separation anxiety may face difficulties in academics, and their professional, social, and personal lives, which may prevent healthy functioning in their day-to-day life.

Separation Anxiety In Babies

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development and may appear between nine and 18 months. Symptoms in babies and toddlers may include crying when the parent or caregiver leaves the room, waking and crying after previously being able to sleep through the night, refusing to go to sleep without a parent close by, and clinging or crying, especially in unfamiliar situations.

If a toddler skips separation anxiety in infancy, they may begin showing signs of the disorder in toddlerhood. Most toddlers outgrow separation anxiety before starting preschool, but for about 3% of children, it continues into elementary school. 

Separation Anxiety In Children

Separation anxiety is the most common anxiety disorder in children. Signs of separation anxiety in school-aged children often appear in the third or fourth grade. At this age, children may refuse to sleep alone, have repeated nightmares about separation, frequent worrying about being away from home or family, panic when separated from parents or caregivers, and be very clingy. Physical symptoms may also appear at this age, including headaches and stomachaches. Separation anxiety can continue into adolescence, affecting about 8% of children over 13.  

Separation Anxiety In Adults

Adults with separation anxiety may exhibit controlling behaviors when away from the attachment figure, like constant phone calls or frequent checking in. They may have trouble falling asleep if they’re alone and fear that something terrible will happen to their loved ones when they are apart. While children and teens may exhibit physical symptoms like headaches and stomachaches, adults are more likely to experience anxiety and panic attacks.

Treatments For Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety Can Significantly Impact Your Relationships

How To Help A Child With Separation Anxiety

If your child exhibits symptoms of separation anxiety, there are some strategies you can use to help them cope. 

  • Prepare them ahead of time for changes in routine. If your child is returning to school after a long break, talk about all the fun things they will do there and the routine they will follow that day. Let your child know when to expect changes, like whether someone else is picking them up or if you will be a few minutes later than usual. By preparing your child, you can help ease their anxiety.

  • Don’t linger on transitions. Don’t drag out goodbyes. Create a goodbye ritual with your child by saying something like, “You’re going to have a fun day at school today, and I can’t wait to hear all about it when I get home from work this afternoon.” Not only can this help your child start their day off on the right foot, but it also reinforces that you will be back and what time they can expect to see you. 

  • Acknowledge and validate their feelings. Letting your child know they are heard is essential, but it’s important not to let crying or wallowing continue for too long because it is unlikely to improve the situation. Listen for a few minutes, then try to refocus their attention onto something positive. Remind them that it is okay to be sad or upset but that going to school (or other situations when they are separated) is important, and you will be there when they get home.

  • Follow through. If you tell your child you will be home at a specific time, make sure you’re home at that time. Don’t sneak away without saying goodbye. They need to know that they can trust you to tell them when you are leaving and when you will return.

  • Be patient. When your child faces a big change in routine, things might be difficult at first. As they adjust, they should become less anxious and worried. Involve your child in decision-making when you can. The more control they have, the more comfortable they will feel.

  • Ask for help. You can reach out to other adults in your child’s life to help them feel comfortable when they are away from you. Talk to your child’s teacher or other caregivers and let them know that your child is having a difficult time. They can help reinforce that you will return and refocus them on their work and play.

If your child needs more help, contact their pediatrician to determine the next steps.

Treatment For Adults With Separation Anxiety

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. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an effective treatment, and online therapy is a convenient way to get started with a therapist.

Online therapy has a lot of benefits, especially if you’re a busy parent who has a hard time leaving their children because of separation anxiety or other issues. With online therapy, you can get treatment from home or anywhere you have an internet connection, and you can reach out to your therapist 24/7 if you need to. 

Research shows that online cognitive behavioral therapy is effective, too. One study showed that online therapy participants experienced “significant and clinically meaningful improvements in depression and anxiety scores” 12 weeks after intervention. These results were sustained six months after treatment. 


Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for babies and toddlers, but some kids and teenagers experience the symptoms for much longer. If your child is experiencing the symptoms of separation anxiety, talk to their pediatrician to determine the next steps. 

Separation anxiety in adults can have different symptoms, including panic and anxiety attacks, that can significantly affect your day-to-day life and relationships. Talking to an online therapist can help you navigate these feelings.

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