Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for infants and toddlers. Young children often experience a period of separation anxiety, but most children outgrow separation anxiety by about 3 years of age.
In some children, separation anxiety is a sign of a more serious condition known as separation anxiety disorder, starting as early as preschool age.
If your child’s separation anxiety seems intense or prolonged — especially if it interferes with school or other daily activities or includes panic attacks or other problems — he or she may have separation anxiety disorder. Most frequently this relates to the child’s anxiety about his or her parents, but it could relate to another close caregiver.
Less often, separation anxiety disorder can also occur in teenagers and adults, causing significant problems leaving home or going to work. But treatment can help.
Separation anxiety disorder is diagnosed when symptoms are excessive for the developmental age and cause significant distress in daily functioning. Symptoms may include:
• Recurrent and excessive distress about anticipating or being away from home or loved ones
• Constant, excessive worry about losing a parent or other loved one to an illness or a disaster
• Constant worry that something bad will happen, such as being lost or kidnapped, causing separation from parents or other loved ones
• Refusing to be away from home because of fear of separation
• Not wanting to be home alone and without a parent or other loved one in the house
• Reluctance or refusing to sleep away from home without a parent or other loved one nearby
• Repeated nightmares about separation
• Frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches or other symptoms when separation from a parent or other loved one is anticipated
Separation anxiety disorder may be associated with panic disorder and panic attacks ― repeated episodes of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes.
Separation anxiety disorder causes major distress and problems functioning in social situations or at work or school.
Disorders that can accompany separation anxiety disorder include:
• Other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia
• Obsessive-compulsive disorder