Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder is a type of anxiety that results from an irrational fear of being separated from a particular person or persons. Most individuals who experience separation anxiety are children, especially kids under the age of two. While not common, separation anxiety disorder can also occur in teens and adults.
About Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder on the anxiety spectrum of disorders. It features an intense sense of distress when the individual is separated from a parent or significant other. Children usually outgrow separation anxiety by the time they reach preschool age. When the symptoms of anxiety are prolonged and continue to intensify, even disrupting school or daily life, it is termed separation anxiety disorder.
Separation anxiety disorder affects about 4.5% of children in the U.S. between ages 7-11, and about 1.3% of teens. In children with separation anxiety disorder, some behaviors indicate the presence of the disorder. These might include bedwetting, repeated temper tantrums, or fear of going to school.
Other symptoms of separation anxiety disorder include:
The cause of separation anxiety may revolve around a traumatic event in the child’s early life. Such events might include the death of a loved one, a hospital stay, moving, parents divorcing, or changing schools. There are some who believe that the anxiety is a reflection of parental anxiety, and that the child has absorbed the parent’s unease about separation. Other possible causes might be over-protective parents or a family history of anxiety disorders.
Diagnosis and Treatment of Separation Anxiety Disorder
Regardless of the age of the individual, when symptoms of separation anxiety disorder begin to impair functioning or disrupt normal daily life it is necessary to be evaluated by a medical professional. A physician will perform a physical exam and order labs to rule out any medical condition that might be causing the symptoms of anxiety. If a health issue is not detected, the individual will then be referred to a therapist. A therapist can assess the child’s developmental stage and determine if the symptoms of the separation anxiety are age-appropriate.
Treatment for separation anxiety disorder is similar to other types of anxiety disorder. It is important for children with separation anxiety disorder to receive treatment so it will not evolve into a more serious anxiety disorder in adulthood. This treatment protocol will primarily involve psychotherapy and family therapy.
Psychotherapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is the most successful type of therapy for treating individuals with separation anxiety disorder. The therapist will guide the individual or child toward changing irrational thoughts about the effects of separation toward rational ones, along with teaching them behavioral coping skills.
Family therapy. Parents will benefit from being coached about how to manage the child’s fears regarding separation, while encouraging the child’s independence. Other family members can learn how to be supportive of the child when they do experience periods of anxiety.
Medication. For adults with separation anxiety disorder, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications may be helpful for managing symptoms.
Support groups. Adults or teens with separation anxiety disorder may benefit from participating in support groups where they can learn new coping techniques for managing the symptoms.
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