Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is defined as excessive worry and fear about being apart from family members or individuals to whom a child is most attached. Children with separation anxiety disorder fear being lost from their family or fear something bad happening to a family member if they are separated from them. Symptoms of anxiety or fear about being separated from family members must last for a period of at least 4 weeks to be considered SAD. It is different from stranger anxiety, which is normal and usually experienced by children between 7 and 11 months of age. Symptoms of SAD are more severe than the normal separation anxiety that nearly every child experiences to some degree between the ages of 18 months and 3 years of age.
Anxiety disorders are believed to have biological, family, and environmental factors that contribute to the cause. A chemical imbalance involving 2 chemicals in the brain (norepinephrine and serotonin) most likely contributes to the cause of anxiety disorders. While a child or adolescent may have inherited a biological tendency to be anxious, anxiety and fear can also be learned from family members and others who frequently display increased anxiety around the child. A traumatic experience may also trigger anxiety.
All children and adolescents experience some anxiety. It is a normal part of growing up. However, when worries and fears are developmentally inappropriate concerning separation from home or family, separation anxiety disorder may be present. SAD occurs equally in males and females. The first symptoms of SAD usually appear around the third or fourth grade. Typically, the onset of symptoms occurs following a break from school, such as Christmas holidays or an extended illness. Children of parents with an anxiety disorder are more likely to have an anxiety disorder.
The following are the most common signs of SAD. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:
Refusal to sleep alone
Repeated nightmares with a theme of separation
Excessive distress when separation from home or family occurs or is anticipated
Excessive worry about the safety of a family member
Excessive worry about getting lost from family
Refusing to go to school
Fearful and reluctant to be alone
Frequent stomachaches, headaches, or other physical complaints
Muscle aches or tension
Excessive worry about safety of self
Excessive worry about or when sleeping away from home
Excessive "clinginess," even when at home
Symptoms of panic and/or temper tantrums at times of separation from parents or caregivers
The symptoms of separation anxiety disorder may resemble other conditions or psychiatric problems. Always consult your child's doctor for a diagnosis.
A child psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional usually diagnoses anxiety disorders in children or adolescents following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. Parents who note signs of severe anxiety in their child or teen can help by seeking an evaluation and treatment early. Early treatment can often prevent future problems.
Specific treatment for separation anxiety disorder will be determined by your child's doctor based on:
Your child's age, overall health, and medical history
Extent of your child's symptoms
Your child's tolerance for specific medications or therapies
Expectations for the course of the condition
Your opinion or preference
Anxiety disorders can be effectively treated. Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the child and family. Treatment recommendations may include cognitive behavioral therapy for the child, with the focus being to help the child or adolescent learn skills to manage his or her anxiety and to help him or her master the situations that contribute to the anxiety. Some children may also benefit from treatment with antidepressant or antianxiety medication to help them feel calmer. Parents play a vital, supportive role in any treatment process. Family therapy and consultation with the child's school may also be recommended.
Preventive measures to reduce the incidence of separation anxiety disorders in children are not known at this time. However, early detection and intervention can reduce the severity of the disorder, enhance the child's normal growth and development, and improve the quality of life experienced by children or adolescents with separation anxiety disorder.