author image Kristen Piering, Psy.D.
author image Kristen Piering, Psy.D.
separation anxiety cartoon

it can be difficult to tell when separation anxiety is a problem for your child. On the first day (or even the first week) of school, it’s certainly normal for a child to seem nervous or tearful when walking through their new classroom door. Parents and teachers usually chalk this up to the start of a new school year jitters. 

However, for some children, this anxiety does not fade and may manifest in multiple areas of the child’s life. This can include play dates, sleepovers, or even being with caretakers other than their parents.

What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Fear of being away from one’s parents, primary caregiver, or other significant attachment figure is the primary mark of separation anxiety disorder (SAD). Younger children who fear being away from their parents are the most vulnerable to SAD. However, the disorder can be present in individuals of any age, including children, teenagers, and even adults.

Those with SAD can fear being away from any significant person in their life, including their parent, child, or romantic partner. This anxiety can manifest as a fear that something bad will happen to one’s parents when they are separated (e.g., accident, illness, or death). It can also be a fear that something scary will happen to the child when they are not with their parent (e.g., being kidnapped or harmed).

Children with separation anxiety may begin to experience distress when they know a separation is approaching. This can happen on a Sunday night before the school week. Also common is for children to have difficulties towards the end of the summer when school is about to resume. Children with this disorder may also fear sleeping alone; they may have recurring nightmares with a theme of separation and harm. Children who fear separation may also have frequent complaints of physical problems, like stomachaches and headaches. These physical problems can worsen when there is an impending separation.

What Can Parents Do?

When children begin to display separation anxiety, parents and teachers understandably become upset and want to ease the child’s fear. Wanting to soothe their child’s distress, parents may occasionally allow their child to stay home from school or allow their child to sleep in the parent’s bed. Sometimes parents will allow their child to call or text during the day for reassurance that their parents are okay. While these strategies will put the child’s mind at ease temporarily, anxiety is ultimately strengthened by these short-term solutions.

Long-term solutions for children with separation anxiety are available. Children, teens, and adults with this disorder can benefit from treatment. What that treatment looks like is described in my post on treatment for separation anxiety.

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author avatar
Kristen Piering, Psy.D. Psychologist

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