Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive worry about being temporarily separated from home, family or loved ones. Separation anxiety is a normal stage of life that may begin with children just before they reach 1 year of age. Once a child begins to realize that objects and people do not disappear when out of sight, this normal anxiety begins to subside. Many factors come into play when successfully 'growing out of' separation anxiety, including the actions taken upon separation and the way in which the child and parent reunite. 4 to 5% of children and adults do not successfully pass this stage and may develop a mental illness called separation anxiety disorder.


Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder


There are a few symptoms that can indicate both normal separation anxiety and the excessive anxiety characterized by development of the disorder. Some of these symptoms may indicate other conditions as well, so it's best to consult a professional if you suspect this illness. The following are the most prevalent signs of separation anxiety disorder:

  • Recurrent nightmares about being separated from home, parents or other important people
  • Refusal to go to sleep without being next to a parent or other caregiver
  • Refusal to go to school, daycare, or other places where the parent or caregiver must leave the child
  • Excessive concern over becoming lost or getting kidnapped
  • Excessive anxiety over the potential for traumatic events, such as death or loss of a family member
  • Headaches, stomachaches, or gastrointestinal problems upon anticipation of leaving or being separated from home or a family member


Causes of Separation Anxiety Disorder


Separation anxiety disorder isn't necessarily caused by one event, or lack of proper interaction by loved ones. While the exact cause is not known, it's likely that genetic predispositions and other environmental factors work together to cause this undue anxiety. Stress during pregnancy has been shown to be related to the development of this disorder in children. Imbalance of certain brain chemicals may play a role, and problems with social rejection or bullying can intensify the anxiety of a child who may already be susceptible or vulnerable to anxiousness.


Diagnosis of Separation Anxiety Disorder


If normal anxiety in new situations does not pass within weeks, a child may be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder. Normally, professional opinions, such as those from a child physician and child psychiatrist or psychologist, will be the most valuable when looking for options. Both the parents and child will be assessed and evaluated, usually on separate occasions. This allows for observance of possible symptoms from the child, and gives the opportunity for everyone to speak freely. Often, the parent's viewpoint of the situation is very different from the child's. After evaluation, a physician will be able to determine whether symptoms are frequent and excessive enough to qualify for a true diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder.


Treatment for Separation Anxiety Disorder


In today's world, there are many treatment options for separation anxiety disorder, both traditional and alternative. Observance of the individual symptoms and preference may determine the best route for treatment. As with any mental illness of this kind, trial and error may be necessary to find the best solution for alleviating symptoms.

  • Behavioral modification is the treatment of choice for most cases of separation anxiety disorder. This technique involves praising and rewards for small victories over symptoms. For example, rather than withholding a treat because of refusal to go to bed, a child may be rewarded for making it halfway to the bedroom alone. This process would encourage the child to continue working toward the end goal.
  • Cognitive therapy is a technique for developing awareness of one's circumstances, feelings and reactions. This type of therapy encourages coping skills and teaches new skills for overcoming the child's personal fears.
  • Traditional medications are generally not recommended for this type of anxiety, but if symptoms persist or worsen, or are accompanied by other types of anxiety, a prescription anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medication may be considered.