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Separation anxiety

4-minute read

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety disorder is a specific phobia and a type of anxiety disorder. It’s normal for young children to be anxious when away from their parent. However, this can become a more serious condition, that doesn’t go away, called separation anxiety disorder.

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?

If you or your child have separation anxiety, you may have:

  • panic around separation
  • separation avoidance
  • stress
  • headaches
  • stomach pain
  • social anxiety
  • intense and ongoing distress
  • disruption to your work or schooling or social events (such as parties)

What causes separation anxiety?

In children, separation anxiety is a common part of growing up. Your baby will develop fears as they become more mobile. This ensures that they don’t get lost or separated from their family. It tends to reach its peak in children aged 14 to 18 months old.

Adults can also have separation anxiety. This can start in adulthood or persist from childhood. Adults with separation anxiety disorder have difficulty leaving someone they’re close to, even for a short time. This can lead to panic attacks when they are separated or thinking about being separated from someone. They may also avoid being away from their loved ones at all.

When should I see my doctor?

If you’re worried about your child’s separation anxiety, you can talk to a doctor, paediatrician, or school counsellor.

If you think you have separation anxiety, see your doctor. They can give you a mental health plan and refer you to a psychologist.

How is separation anxiety diagnosed?

To diagnose separation anxiety, your doctor will ask you or your child some questions.

Separation anxiety disorder is defined as:

  • anxiety that interferes with your life, and your loved ones’ lives
  • more severe anxiety than what is typically expected in a situation
  • being the same for at least 4 weeks

For adults, separation anxiety disorder usually occurs with other mental illnesses such as:

How is separation anxiety treated?

Separation anxiety treatments for children

If your child has separation anxiety, you can adopt the stepladder approach.

This process takes steps that:

  • match your child’s anxiety level
  • improve your child’s coping skills while separated from you

This is achieved through support and reward.

The first step may involve short-term. Eventually, this approach will help your child cope with longer separations. You can find examples of the stepladder approach through the Centre for Emotional Health.

Separation anxiety treatments for adults

To treat separation anxiety in adults, the first step is to speak to a doctor or mental health professional. They can give you a treatment plan that will start with educating you about anxiety and may involve exposure treatment. This is a type of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) that is often used to treat phobias. Exposure treatment slowly makes it easier to manage your triggers.

Treatment may also include antidepressants and anxiety medication.

Advice for carers

A person with separation anxiety can be affected by those around them. It is important to educate their:

  • partner
  • family
  • friends
  • carers

A doctor or psychologist can offer care and advice to the families of people with separation anxiety.

Resources and support

Find support and more information about separation anxiety from This Way Up.

Call Healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak with a registered nurse. The line is open 24 hours, 7 days a week (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: August 2022

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