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How to Treat Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children

Separation disorder, also known as separation anxiety, is a common problem in both children and adults. In children, the disorder can create issues like social anxiety and developmental problems.

The disorder also affects adults, although this was something that hadn't been as discussed until recently. In this article, we'll look at separation disorder, its causes, and its solutions.

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Children and Separation Disorder

Separation anxiety is generally looked at as a childhood disorder. However, this is misleading. First, many adults have their own form of separation anxiety. And second, children with separation problems often have adults with general anxiety, and the children pick up on that. That's why you need to make sure you take my anxiety test.

Causes of Childhood Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is severe fear when a child is away from parents or familiar faces. Separation anxiety can be genetic, and it can be a response to traumatic life events. These are difficult to control, but may lead to separation problems. Often, however, childhood separation anxiety is unintentionally caused by the parents as well - or at least reinforced to the point where it is harder to control.

Again, no anxiety is that simple. Even childhood anxiety is often caused by hundreds of different factors, and parents should never blame themselves. It can even be caused by strangers or grandparents or kids at school. But parents often also reinforce anxiety in several ways:

  • Showing Fear When Leaving a Child Just as children are not used to being away from parents, so too are parents not always used to being away from children, and some parents end up showing an considerable amount of fear when they are about to leave their son or daughter somewhere. Children pick up on that fear and then start to worry themselves. Controlling your own anxiety is important.
  • Long Goodbyes All children will experience some anxiety when they're getting away from their parents for the first time, but they can often control it. However, when a parent does a long, drawn out goodbye with too many hugs and kisses and saying "be good" or "be okay" they make the event bigger. Not only do they increase the anxiety by acting as though they're leaving forever - once the parents leave, that child will experience a huge difference in attention, thus increasing the fear.
  • Avoiding Acknowledging/Rewarding Fear Many parents also respond too easily to fearful behavior. You want to be there for your child, but you also don't want them to think that their fear is warranted. When they cry or ask to go with you or say they need you, and you pick them up and hug them and tell them it's going to be okay, you have accidentally rewarded a fearful behavior, thus increasing the likelihood they experience these in the future.
  • Long Emotional Hellos It's not always what you do when you leave either. When you come back you also need to make sure that you don't make it seem like you being gone was a dangerous thing. When you come back, say hi as if you barely left, not as if you just came back from a dangerous journey. Give them a normal hug and kiss and smile and act like it was no big deal. When you have overly emotional hellos, your child will experience too much excitement at you coming back and not want you to leave again.

These are all of the mistakes that many parents make when raising a child because they're trying to be loving and supportive. The child will feel loved and supported, but unfortunately it will often create more fear and make separation anxiety worse in the future.

Behavioral Ways to Reduce Childhood Separation Anxiety

Most childhood separation anxiety goes away on its own, and when it's severe enough doctors will prescribe anti-anxiety medications or therapy. But there are also ideas that you can use to reduce anxiety.

The simplest one is to reinforce bravery. Children respond very well to positive reinforcement. When your child shows fear, don't respond. When your child shows bravery, give your child a great deal of encouragement, love, and support. Many parents feel that they need to help their child when they cry too much or are too upset because that's the natural instinct, and sometimes you do, but children respond better to positive reinforcement of wanted behaviors.

However, another strategy you can try is a graduate reduction of the anxiety of separation. This may need to take place over a significant period of time in many different settings to work properly, but essentially what you are doing is gradually desensitizing your child to some of the aspects of leaving.

  • First, make sure you're taking your child to different environments, like friend's houses, stranger's houses, and more. They need to get used to being in different and unusual places without fear. You don't need to leave them yet. Make sure you're taking them out whenever you can.
  • Next, go to a friend's house and, when your friend is there, leave the child in the room for a few minutes while you're in the other room. You're still not leaving, but you're getting your child used to being alone. Repeat this process numerous times so that your child is used to you not being in the same room as them.
  • The next step is to leave, but not go far. You may even want to simply stand outside of the door, or stand in the driveway. Do it for only a minute or less and immediately come back in. Chances are your child won't even know you're gone, and that's okay. Repeat the process for a longer and longer period of time. It's a good idea to still have the child in the room with someone, simply because at their age they aren't going to be left alone much yet anyway.
  • The next step is to actually leave. This time, leave for about 5 minutes so that you're nowhere near the home, then come back. Once again, repeat this process more and more times with each time becoming longer and longer.
  • Once you've successfully been able to leave your child for long enough, try this in different settings, with different people around, in different events, and more. Repeat this process numerous times in as many different settings as you can think of to ensure that they are exposed to exactly what they might experience in other places. You can also practice dropping them off places for 2 minutes at a time, and slowly expanding the time spent out.

This type of desensitization is hard to do and time consuming, but also known to be very effective. It's one of the few strategies that you can do without medicine or therapy, and may help your child recover from separation anxiety more quickly.

Otherwise, you may have to play the waiting game, and make sure that you avoid any of the problems that may have reinforced your child's anxiety in the first place.

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Adult Separation Anxiety

Normally the idea of separation anxiety is limited to children and pets. But there is more and more evidence that adults suffer from their own separation anxiety as well, and in some cases this can mean a lifetime of stress, anxiety, and missing out on happiness and opportunities.

Adult separation anxiety is believed to be a far more common problem than people gave it credit for, although the way it exhibits itself is very different. It's not often a connection to parents or anxiety when they leave. Rather, it manifests in other symptoms, including things like:

  • Extreme Adult Anxiety Some adult separation anxiety may be apparent because it does mimic childhood anxiety problems. There are some adults that cannot be separated from their parents or relationship partner otherwise they experience severe panic attacks at the very thought of being left alone. These tend to be less common, however.
  • Relationship/Friend Jealousy In some ways, jealousy is a form of separation anxiety, and extreme jealousy may be a significant form. That is not an excuse for jealousy, particularly if it is unwarranted or hostile. People do have self-control and the freedom to make their own decisions. But there is some evidence that those with separation anxiety are possessive and needy because they're worried others will leave them.
  • Strict Parenting Though it is not entirely clear, there is some proof that parents that are too strict to their children suffer from their own separation anxiety issues. The strictness is the parent's way of trying to make sure their child won't leave them. By trying to control their life, it gives them some piece of mind that the child isn't going to somehow go away.
  • Inability to Leave Relationships Of course, a very simplistic form of separation anxiety may be the unwillingness to leave a relationship, or to inability to be alone. There are many adults that find themselves with extreme anxiety and discomfort when they are stuck with themselves. They would rather be in an unhappy relationship than leave, because they experience more stress leaving than they do in a relationship that is going nowhere.

These are just a few examples of adult separation anxiety manifestations. A "clingy" nature and mooching may also be very similar signs of this type of anxiety, and in some cases they can create even more stress and anxiety in other ways that ultimately fuel the separation anxiety further (such as staying in relationships that are stressful).

Ways to Stop Separation Disorder in Adults

Adult separation disorder is in some ways easier to treat, and in some ways harder to treat. It's harder to treat because for those that go through it the emotions feel normal. Rarely will anyone say "I have an attachment problem" or "I am experiencing the wrong emotion here" and try to deal with it. For many, it's so natural that it's all they know, and they believe that their emotions and reactions are exactly as they should be. They may even justify them to themselves.

But those that actually do see that they are suffering from this type of problem can make changes that help. And since adults are a bit more responsive to treatments, it may be a bit easier to treat than childhood separation anxiety.

  • Support Groups Support groups may be one of the better strategies. They fulfill a need that those with adult separation disorder have - being around people - while simultaneously helping individuals learn strategies to prevent that anxiety from affecting them in the long term. You may have to create your own support group, however.
  • Being Alone Somehow, if possible, try to start spending more time alone out. Part of this has to do with loving yourself more, so having more experiences out alone that the other person doesn't share in can help that anxiety go away. Essentially, facing your fear is incredibly important, because only by facing your fear can you hope to truly get used to the idea.
  • Therapy/Other Help These are also cases where cognitive behavioral intervention may be appropriate. Remember, a big part of the issue is that these emotions and feelings seem normal. A trained professional can work with you to make sure that you're having the right reactions and that your mindset is in the right place to deal with this type of anxiety.

You'll also want to strongly consider attacking all of your anxiety at once. Even though anxiety disorders are all different, anxiety itself can be controlled with the right relaxation and behavioral remedies.

Make sure you take my anxiety test now to find out more. I've helped thousands of people overcome their anxiety, including adult separation anxiety, and the anxiety test is the best place to start.

Start the test here.


Cyranowski, Jill M., et al. Adult separation anxiety: psychometric properties of a new structured clinical interview . Journal of psychiatric research 36.2 (2002): 77-86.

Shear, Katherine, et al. Prevalence and correlates of estimated DSM-IV child and adult separation anxiety disorder in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R) . The American journal of psychiatry 163.6 (2006): 1074.

Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.

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