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Separation anxiety

2-minute read

Separation anxiety disorder is a specific phobia and a type of anxiety disorder. Being anxious when separated from a parent is common among toddlers and children, and a normal part of development. However, this can develop into a more serious and persistent condition called separation anxiety disorder and continue into later life.

Separation anxiety disorder is defined as when:

  • anxiety interferes with the child’s life, and subsequently the parent’s life
  • the child has more severe anxiety than other children the same age
  • separation anxiety has been going on consistently for at least 4 weeks

What causes separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety tends to reach its peak in 14–18 months old children. It’s a primitive instinct that leads the baby to develop fears as they become more mobile so they don’t get lost or separated from their family.

Adult separation anxiety disorder has only been recognised since the late 1990s. Adults may find it difficult to leave someone they’re close to even for a short time. It can lead to panic attacks when they are separated or thinking about being separated from someone.

Separation anxiety treatments

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

You can also try the stepladder approach via the Raising Children Network.

For adults, as separation anxiety disorder usually exists alongside other panic or anxiety disorders, the first step is to speak to a doctor or mental health professional who will recommend a treatment plan. Exposure treatment is a type of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) that is often used to treat phobias and involves slowly increasing a person’s ability to deal with their specific stressor.

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Last reviewed: April 2020

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