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Mental Health

Separation Anxiety Disorder


Author: Anxiety Canada


It is normal for children to sometimes feel anxious or insecure when separated from their parents or other important caregivers. Usually, such separation anxiety fades as they grow up and become more confident. If your child's separation anxiety continues to persist after the age of five and starts affecting his or her life (e.g. refuses to be out of sight of parent), then your child may have separation anxiety disorder, which involves excessive anxiety when a child is, or is expecting, to be separated from home or a loved one (such as a parent or a caregiver).

Be sure to watch our video for more information!

Separation anxiety disorder can really interfere with or restrict a child or teen's normal activities. He or she can become isolated from peers, and have difficulty developing and maintaining friendships. It can also lead to missed opportunities to learn new activities. School attendance and performance can drop. Many children and teens with separation anxiety disorder appear depressed, withdrawn, and apathetic.

Key Points:

  • Approximately 12% of children will suffer from separation anxiety disorder before they reach age 18.

  • Separation anxiety disorder has three peaks: between ages 5-6, 7-9, and 12-14.


The Story of 7-year-old Allison

Allison is a 7-year-old girl who lives with her parents and two older siblings. Allison has missed numerous days of school since starting kindergarten, and lately has become even more upset about going to school. Once a week, Allison has temper tantrums and screams for her mom to allow her to stay home. Other days, she makes her mom stay in the school hallway for at least an hour before Allison 'allows' her to leave. Mom must be exactly on time picking her up at the end of school; otherwise, Allison threatens not to go to school the next day. Allison also insists that her mom be present when she goes to birthday parties or school field trips, and she wants her mom to be in sight at all times if they go to the park. Allison has nightmares about monsters coming 'to get her and take her away'. She also worries about her parents being harmed in an accident or being beaten up by burglars.

The Story of 13-year-old James

James is a 13-year-old boy with separation anxiety. He refuses to be out of sight of his parents when he is at home. When James was younger, he used to come into his parents' bedroom in the middle of the night to sleep with them. Although they allowed it for several years, in the past year his parents have begun insisting that he sleep in his own room all night. Lately, James complains of stomach aches and 'not feeling well,' and pleads to sleep with them, often throwing tantrums. James prefers to do things with his parents than with his friends. He refuses sleepover invitations, and is very anxious about the end-of-year camping trip, which includes two nights sleeping away from home.

Recognizing separation anxiety disorder

Physical Symptoms include: stomach aches, dizziness, racing heart, shallow breathing and other common physical complaints associated with anxiety. Teens are also likely to complain of headaches, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, or having a panic attack.

Anxious thoughts include: a variety of different worries about separation or being alone. Younger children may not be able to identify any specific worries, and instead just say that they do not want to do an activity. Older children and teens may describe worries about something "bad" happening, either to them or to a parent/caregiver.

Hint: The timing of these physical complaints is often a good clue to identify separation anxiety. For example, parents may hear these complaints on the morning of a school day, but not on the weekend.

Common worries include:

  • What if something bad happens to mom or dad?

  • What if I get lost?

  • What if grandma doesn't pick me up after school?

  • What if I get kidnapped?

  • What if I get sick and mom isn't there to help me?

Behavioural symptoms of younger children include: crying, clinging, or temper tantrums when anticipating or actually experiencing separation. They may have difficulty falling asleep alone, and have nightmares with themes of separation or death of loved ones. Often children with this problem will say things like:

  • "Don't leave me alone!"

  • "Where are you going?"

  • "Mommy, don't go!"

Children with this problem might also refuse to:

  • Be in a room by themselves

  • Stay at school or participate in activities (such as swimming, sports, or other group activities) unless a trusted person stays with them

  • Be at home with a babysitter when the parents are out

  • Sleep alone

Behaviour symptoms of teens: Although separation anxiety disorder is more common in elementary-school aged children, teens might experience separation anxiety when adjusting to a transition or a stressful situation (such as a divorce, or the death of a parent). For example, they suddenly may not be able to:

  • Go for sleepovers with friends they know well

  • Stay at school if a parent or trusted family member is not there

  • Go on a school trip unless a parent comes along

  • Use public transportation alone

Find more strategies to help you manage separation anxiety disorder in our MAP online courses.


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