When Does Separation Anxiety Become Worrisome?

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Separation Anxiety in Children

Separation anxiety is when anyone – young or old – is fearful or stressed out about being separated from someone or something or even a pet.

Separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for infants and toddlers, which is why it is generally more talked about in children than adults.

toddlers are still learning the concept that while someone is out of sight temporarily, they will return later

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Children

Typical symptoms of separation anxiety in children include:
  • Fearfulness or nervousness when away from home or separated from a parent
  • Clinging to parents
  • Crying
  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Bed wetting
  • Temper tantrums
  • Refusal to go to pre-school or daycare
  • Refusal to sleep alone
  • Nightmares

A Normal Part of Childhood Development

Why is separation anxiety a normal stage of development for children?

Infants are helpless and rely solely on their mother and father for their safety and well-being. Separation from their mother or father is scary. An infant knows its parents are critical to its survival.

As babies grow into toddlers, they start to explore the world around them and test their independence. However, their innate survival skills also remind them that they need to keep mom and dad close for their protection and well-being. Also, toddlers are still learning the concept that while someone is out of sight temporarily, they will return later.

Separation anxiety usually subsides in children by around four to six years of age.

When Separation Anxiety Becomes a Disorder

Separation anxiety is not an issue unless it becomes prolonged or severe or starts to interfere with daily activities. Then, separation anxiety may have progressed into a disorder. Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic, include:
  • Constant, excessive distress about being away from home or parents
  • Persistent, excessive worry about losing a parent from an illness, accident, or disaster
  • Refusal to leave home or stay at home by one’s self
  • Refusal to sleep away from home
  • Recurrent nightmares
  • Panic attacks
  • Frequent complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or other ailments when separation is anticipated
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Failure to interact in healthily with other children

Treatment for separation anxiety disorder usually focuses on talk therapy


What triggers the progression of normal separation anxiety into a disorder?
Most commonly, it is a life stress that results in a separation from a loved one, such as:
  • Illness
  • Death
  • Loss of a pet
  • Divorce or separation
  • Moving
  • Transferring schools
  • Disaster or emergency
WebMD also talks about the fact that children whose parents are over-protective may be more prone to separation anxiety. The child is feeding off the parent’s concern.

Children with a separation anxiety disorder may have family members with anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues, as there seems to be some genetic component.


Treatment for separation anxiety disorder usually focuses on talk therapy, also called psychotherapy.

Talk therapy is when the child talks to a mental health professional about why he or she feels upset or fearful. The therapist tries to help work through the child’s fears and concerns.

Antidepressants may be used to treat severe cases of separation anxiety disorder.


It is crucial to talk to your pediatrician if you are concerned that your child’s normal separation anxiety may have progressed into a disorder. He or she can perform a complete physical exam and make sure no underlying physical issues or medications contributing to the stress.

Your pediatrician may recommend your child see a psychologist or other mental health professional if there are no physical causes for the separation anxiety.

TalkingParents blogs are for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. Always consult with a qualified attorney regarding legal matters.

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