Everything You Need to Know About Separation Anxiety in Adults and Children
Separation anxiety is not seen exclusively in children. It can be seen in older children and adults, too. While babies and toddlers often get clingy and cry if you, or their other carers, leave them for just a short time, adults who suffer from separation anxiety will have an extreme fear that bad things will happen to important people in their lives - family members and close friends, for example.
Separation anxiety, a fear of separation, and a fear of strangers is a normal occurrence in young children between the ages of 6 months to 3 years. It is a completely normal part of a child’s development and they usually grow out of it.
In regards to separation anxiety in adults, the direct cause is unknown to researchers. It is typically seen alongside other anxiety-related conditions, such as panic disorder, agoraphobia, and generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) and can seriously affect daily life.
What is Separation Anxiety Disorder? Adults vs Children
Separation anxiety is a regular part of child development between the ages of 6 months, to 3 years. If separation anxiety symptoms persist into late childhood, your child may be diagnosed as having child separation anxiety disorder.
If these symptoms continue into adulthood, you could be diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder. Children and adults share some similar separation anxiety symptoms too.
For children with separation anxiety disorder, it is usually the result of the association of extreme fear or anxiety about being away from their parents or caregivers for any amount of time.
These symptoms of anxiety can make the child less willing to participate in social events and experiences, like spending their first night away from home and at a friend’s house or having a camping experience with the school.
In adults, the relationship separation anxiety is around being away from their children, their boyfriend/girlfriend, or spouse. Instead of schoolwork being affected, work function or other personal responsibilities can become impaired.
Why Does Separation Anxiety Happen in Children?
If you remember your baby being calm whenever you left the room, and they appeared to be happy whenever they were held by people they didn’t know, it may not seem to make sense when they begin crying whenever you aren’t around or if strangers are close.
Separation anxiety happens because your baby now realises how dependent they actually are on the people who care for them. This extends beyond their parents and can include their grandparents or professionals who are closely involved with their care.
As your child grows more aware of their surroundings, the strong relationship your baby has with this small group of people can mean that they don’t feel safe without you, or these people. Their growing awareness of the world around them can also become a factor in making them feel unsafe or upset in new situations or with new people, even if you are there.
How to Handle Separation Anxiety in Children
Having a child who suffers from separation anxiety can make it difficult at times to leave your baby or child at nursery, in someone else’s care, or if your child refuses to go to school. You may feel overwhelmed and distressed by their tears and you may worry about how this may affect your baby each time you need to leave them.
It is important to remember that this is a natural part of child development and they will feel anxious without you, but there is no reason to feel guilty when you need to get on with the other essential parts of your life. It may offer some comfort to know that separation anxiety is typically a sign of how well you have bonded with your child, so it’s good to know that they like you.
Rather than worrying, you can focus on helping your baby to understand their feelings and how they can deal with them so they have a better time dealing with separation anxiety and other feelings into adulthood. With this, they’ll be able to learn that if you leave them, they will know that they will be okay and you will be back. If your baby is of talking and understanding age, you can even talk to them about what’s happening, where you’re going, and when you’re projected to be with them again.
It may also offer further comfort to know that leaving your baby in a caregiver’s care will not damage them. Doing this will actually help them to learn how to cope in your absence, and that is a very important step towards their ever-growing independence.
Just to reiterate this point further, try not to be too hard on yourself - separation anxiety common, and is a normal part of child development.
Tips for Treating and Preventing Childhood Separation Anxiety Disorder
Below, we offer some tips to help you and your child get through their symptoms of separation anxiety together. These include:
Practice Short Separations from Your Child as a Starting Point
As a starting off point, you could begin by leaving your child in the care of someone trusted for a few minutes as you go to the local shop to grab some groceries. Leaving your baby with someone who they have been in contact with before, and know well, will help to make them feel comfortable and safe whilst you’re away.
Using this tactic, you can gradually work towards longer separations, and leave them with trusted people in settings away from home.
Discuss What You’ll Do Together When You Return
Talking to your toddler about what they can look forward to when you see them again will help them to not feel lonely, and this will help them to realise that you will return. For example, you could say: “when I come back to pick you up, we can go to the park to play. How does that sound?”
Leave Something Comforting With Your Baby
It may offer some comfort to your baby to have something they recognise and identify as yours, like a scarf with your scent on or a toy you play with together, nearby. This may help to reassure them and put them at ease in your absence.
Make Saying Goodbye a Positive Time
Leaving your baby whilst you are showing signs of sadness and worry will not help your baby to stay calm. At times when you need to leave your baby, wave and smile confidently and happily, otherwise they will pick up on your tension. Giving your baby the experience of saying goodbye, and then having a happy reunion upon your return, will help to teach them an important life lesson.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms in Adults
While it is normal to be concerned or worried about the well-being of loved ones, separation anxiety in adults can cause you to experience high levels of anxiety, and even panic attacks when loved ones are out of reach.
Adults who have separation in anxiety may become socially withdrawn, show signs of extreme sadness, or have difficulty concentrating when away from loved ones. In parents, the disorder can lead to strict over-involved parenting, and separation anxiety in relationships could cause you to become an overbearing partner.
Some other common symptoms can include, but are not limited to:
- Unjustified fears that loved ones, or yourself, will be abducted or fatally injured
- Extreme and persistent hesitancy or refusal to leave the vicinity of loved ones
- Difficulty sleeping while away from loved ones due to the fear something may happen to them
- Depression or anxiety attacks related to the above
You may also suffer from physical aches, pains, headaches, and even diarrhoea associated with periods of anxiety.
For you to be diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder, these separation anxiety symptoms must impair functioning and continue for at least six months.
Risk Factors With Separation Anxiety in Adults
Separation anxiety is a frequent response after the loss of a loved one or following a significant life event such as moving to university. You may be more susceptible to developing adult separation anxiety disorder if you were diagnosed with the condition as a child. Adults who grew up with overbearing and strict parents can also be at an increased risk.
Adult separation anxiety disorder is most often diagnosed in people who have also received a diagnosis of the following conditions:
- Generalised anxiety disorder (GAD)
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Panic disorder
- Social anxiety disorder
- Personality disorders
Separation Anxiety Treatments for Adults
Adult separation anxiety can be onset during childhood, or after a significant life event in adulthood. In a similar vein to other anxiety disorders, adult separation anxiety can affect your quality of life, although the condition can be managed with treatment.
When looking to treat separation anxiety disorder, you may find that treatment is actually a similar process to the treatment of other anxiety disorders. Your GP may recommend a variety of treatments, or you may have to find the one that works for you. Some possible treatments can include:
- Group therapy
- Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT)
- Family therapy
- Dialectal behavioural therapy (DBT)
- Medications, such as antidepressants and others
If you believe you, or someone you love, has adult separation anxiety disorder, we recommend speaking to your GP as they will be able to determine the best course of action when it comes to overcoming this issue.