Separation anxiety: symptoms and treatment

The main characteristic of separation anxiety disorder is the excessive anxiety manifested by the child when he has to separate from someone in the family to whom he is deeply attached (usually the mother figure)

This state of anxiety must be developmentally inappropriate and first appear in the first six years of life.

Subjects suffering from separation anxiety usually have normal behaviour as long as they are in the presence of the parent or primary attachment figure, but manifest intense anxiety when they are separated from it.

They also tend to express unrealistic and persistent fears about the occurrence of catastrophic events that could separate them from their parents forever.

Children with separation anxiety disorder fear that they will be killed or kidnapped or that they will suffer some serious accident or illness if they are away from their parents, or that something bad will happen to their parents when they are away.

They usually avoid being alone even for a few minutes.

They may show an intense reluctance to go to school, as this implies a detachment from their mother or, more generally, from the primary attachment figure.

Children with separation anxiety often have difficulty at bedtime and may insist that someone stay with them until they fall asleep

When separated from their parents, they may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, vomiting, stomach aches, abdominal pain.

Away from home, they tend to be sad and ask to phone their parents and be taken home.

Separation anxiety disorder may sometimes develop after some stressful life event (e.g. the death of a relative or pet, an illness of the child or relative, a change of school, a move to another area, or immigration).

The abnormality must last at least 4 weeks, begin before the age of 18, and cause clinically significant distress or impairment in the social, school (work), or other important areas of functioning.

Children with separation anxiety are often described as demanding, intrusive, and in need of constant attention

The child’s excessive demands often become a source of frustration for the parents, leading to resentment and family conflict.

Often, if left untreated, these children can develop panic attacks, agoraphobia or a full-blown dependent personality disorder in adolescence.

Adult emotional relationships can also be characterised by forms of emotional dependency.

Separation anxiety disorder can be effectively dealt with by means of psychotherapeutic, cognitive-behavioural treatment, often of short duration, but which must also necessarily involve family members.

Usually psychopharmaceuticals are not indicated, let alone anxiolytics, which can induce dependency and addiction.

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