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Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children

But when children don’t outgrow the fear of being apart from a parent, it’s called separation anxiety disorder. Even as they get older, children with SAD feel very anxious about being away from their parent or away from home.
Young girl playing alone while mother is using laptop
© University of East Anglia

It’s normal for babies and very young children to feel anxious the first times they are apart from their parent.

But soon they get used to being with a grandparent, babysitter, or teacher. And they start to feel at home at nursery or school.

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) in Children

But when children don’t outgrow the fear of being apart from a parent, it’s called separation anxiety disorder. Even as they get older, children with SAD feel very anxious about being away from their parent or away from home. They may miss many days of school. They may say they feel too sick or upset to go. They may cling to a parent, cry, or refuse to go to school, sleepovers, playdates, or other activities without their parent. At home, they may have trouble falling asleep or sleeping alone. They may avoid being in a room at home if their parent isn’t close by.

Usually such separation anxiety fades as they grow up, begin school, and gain confidence. However, for some children their response to actual or anticipated separations is far more extreme than their peers, and/or continues well beyond the first 1-2 years of school. These children’s difficulties may indicate the presence of separation anxiety disorder.

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) Challenges

Separation anxiety disorder can really interfere with or limit a child or teen’s normal activities. He or she can become isolated from peers, and have difficulty developing and maintaining friendships. Separation anxiety can also lead to missed opportunities to learn new things and engage in fun activities. School attendance and performance can drop. Many children and teens with separation anxiety disorder appear depressed, withdrawn, and apathetic.

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) Points to Consider

  • Separation anxiety disorder is the most common anxiety disorder in children under 12 years of age, with a gradual decrease in frequency as children mature into adolescence and adulthood. However, separation anxiety can continue well into adulthood, and even begin in adulthood.
  • Onset of separation anxiety peaks at several points of development including with entry into Kindergarten, between ages 7-9, and again with either entry into Middle or High School.
  • Boys and girls are equally affected by separation anxiety.
© University of East Anglia
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