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Separation Anxiety Disorder

Separation Anxiety Disorder is a mental health disorder that begins in childhood. It is characterized by a child’s worrying that is out of proportion to the situation of temporarily leaving home or separation from loved ones. Approximately four to five percent of children and adolescents suffer from separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety first develops when a child is around seven months of age.

This is when the baby begins to understand his or her caregivers and develops an attachment to them. It is normal for an infant and toddler to express separation anxiety and the anxiety is the strongest at 10 to 18 months of age. According the to the American Academy of Pediatrics, stranger anxiety begins at eight months and generally ends by three years of age. However, when this fear occurs in a child over the age of six and lasts for an extended period of time, the child may have separation anxiety disorder.

Causes of Separation Anxiety Disorder

A child who has separation anxiety usually becomes fearful and nervous when he or she is away from home or separated from loved ones. Some children will experience headaches or stomachaches merely at the thought of being separated. As with most mental-health conditions, separation anxiety is likely caused by the combination of genetic and environmental vulnerabilities. It tends to be more common in children whose parents suffer from some form of anxiety as well as mothers who were stressed during pregnancy. Many children who refuse to attend school qualify for the diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder as well.

Signs of Separation Anxiety Disorder

  • Repeated excessive anxiety about something bad happening to a loved one
  • Anxiety about losing a loved one
  • Heightened concern about getting lost or kidnapped
  • Repeated nightmares about being separated from loved ones
  • Headaches and stomachaches when thinking about being separated
  • Refusal to go to day care or school
  • Refusal to be alone or without a loved one
  • Persistent reluctance to go to sleep at nighttime without a loved one present

Diagnosis

Doctors who have training and experience understanding symptoms of children are the most qualified to diagnose separation anxiety disorder. Doctors will assess the child, which will include a series of interviews with the child and the parents. They will usually be interviewed by a pediatrician and a child psychologist separately. It is important that they be interviewed separately due to the different responses that the parents and child may give to the health-care professionals. They will also make sure that there are no other medical issues occurring, therefore lab work may be ordered as well.

Treatment of Separation Anxiety Disorder

Medication is generally the last treatment option for separation anxiety disorder because there are no medications specifically approved by the FDA to treat separation anxiety disorder. Counseling is the treatment of choice for children who have mild separation anxiety. Psychotherapy, medication and parent counseling are three different types of treatment that have been found to be effective in treating the disorder. Behavioral modification therapy and cognitive therapy are also different approaches to treatment that may be effective.

Behavioral therapy will allow children to be rewarded when they overcome symptoms rather than be punished for them. This form of therapy addresses their behavior positively rather than negatively. Cognitive therapy is used to help children learn how they think and to increase their problem solving ability. By learning to focus on positive thoughts, children may become more open to learning strategies and to deal with anxiety. Many of these forms of treatment have been proven successful. If your child is suffering from separation anxiety disorder, be encouraged to try one or all of these treatments. It is important to seek help so that your child will overcome separation anxiety.

View Resources

  • Medicine.net – Provides information on separation anxiety disorder in children.
  • Web MD – Provides information on separation anxiety.

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