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Separation anxiety disorder (SAD) is a type of anxiety disorder characterized by feeling extreme distress regarding separation from home or from people with whom one has strong emotional attachment. It is typically observed during early childhood development, outgrown when the child reaches about 3 years of age. However, it becomes classified as a disorder when the fear or anxiety begins to interfere with age-appropriate behavior, such as at school or other daily activities.
Key Warning Signs of Separation Anxiety
Excessive distress or panic at the thought of being separated from parents or caregivers is the most glaring sign of separation anxiety. This could inhibit one from doing even routine tasks.
Other symptoms include:
- Constant excessive stress about the idea of being away from home or loved ones
- Constant fear of losing a loved one while separated from them
- Constant dread that disaster will strike while separated from loved ones
- Worrying about bad things happening that may lead to permanent separation from loved ones
- Reluctance to leave home
- Fear of being alone without a loved one in the house
- Fear of dark spaces
- Recurrent nightmares about being separated from loved ones
- Constantly reaching out to loved ones by messaging them when they’re out of sight
- Tantrums when faced with separation anxiety disorder
In an academic setting…
These symptoms may manifest further as children with separation anxiety disorder refuses to step foot in the school. They may have a hard time saying goodbye to their parents, to the point of throwing a fit when they leave. They might continue crying as if they are in pain and screaming for their parents, constantly wanting to know if they are okay.
Children with separation anxiety disorder would feel constant distress while separated from their parents, which could lead to them being unable to get anything done. They refuse to interact with others, even their teachers. They may then fall behind on their coursework.
Children with separation anxiety disorder tend to suffer from poor academic performance as well as alienation from their peers.
In a home setting…
The symptoms of separation anxiety disorder may not be as pronounced but still there. For instance, the child may refuse to be left alone in a room even though their parents are right next door. They may also cling to their parents and follow them around, which might affect how the parents perform their chores.
If separation anxiety disorder persists into adulthood, then the person would have to wrestle with the symptoms even in a work setting. The avoidance behavior they might have clung to in their youth would be carried over into adulthood, which could lead to them having poor social skills. Separation anxiety disorder, like other disorders, can lead to decreased productivity as well.
Risk factors that contribute to the development of separation anxiety disorder include biological, cognitive, and environmental factors.
A child is more likely to develop separation anxiety disorder if one or both their parents are diagnosed with a mental health disorder.
Separation anxiety disorder can also be triggered by a stressful life event, such as a death in the family or parental divorce. Moving to a new home or school can also be a factor, as the child is immediately thrust in an unfamiliar environment.
To be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, a comprehensive examination will be conducted by your doctor, using the criteria provided in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-V). For a diagnosis to be made, you would have to present at least three of the following signs:
- Recurrent excessive distress when anticipating or experiencing separation from home or from major attachment figures
- Persistent and excessive worry about losing major attachment figures or about possible harm to them, such as illness, injury, disasters, or death
- Persistent and excessive worry about experiencing an untoward event (e.g., getting lost, being kidnapped, having an accident, becoming ill) that causes separation from a major attachment figure
- Persistent reluctance or refusal to go out, away from home, to school, to work, or elsewhere because of fear of separation
- Persistent and excessive fear of or reluctance about being alone or without major attachment figures at home or in other settings
- Persistent reluctance or refusal to sleep away from home or to go to sleep without being near a major attachment figure
- Repeated nightmares involving the theme of separation
- Repeated complaints of physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, nausea, vomiting) when separation from major attachment figures occurs or is anticipated
Moreover, your doctor would first have to make sure that the symptoms have been present for more than 6 months in adults, that the symptoms have been affecting your quality of life, and that the symptoms cannot be caused by other disorders.
Separation anxiety disorder affects nearly 4% of children in the US and an average of 4.8% of adults across 18 countries. Fortunately, there are ways to effectively treat the disorder, especially if it has been diagnosed early on.
Non-medication based treatments are the first choice when treating separation anxiety disorder, especially in children. Counseling helps in informing both the child and the family about the disorder, as well as guiding the parents and teachers into how best to support the child. School-based counseling, in particular, aims to help the child with separation anxiety disorder to navigate their emotions better in order to meet the social and academic demands of school.
Therapy is also a common approach in which a safe place is provided for the child to express their emotions.
When non-medication based treatments fail to work, the use of drug treatments come next. Though there is no known specific medication for separation anxiety disorder yet, there are options available that can ease specific symptoms.
If you think your child has separation anxiety disorder, it’s best to seek professional help. Early diagnosis and treatment can go a long way of preventing the disorder from getting worse.