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Author: Dr Sabina DosaniConsultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist

It’s totally normal for young children to become very upset and clingy when separated from their important adults. In some children this continues as they grow up or comes back when they are older. In my work, I see children who have experienced separation anxiety throughout their childhood and others who develop it later on.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is defined as ‘developmentally inappropriate, excessive, persistent and unrealistic worry about separation from attachment figures1.

It’s very normal for children to go through stages of separation anxiety as they develop.

It’s also very normal for children to go through stages of being ‘clingy’, but if your child regularly has anxiety when separated from you or if it is impacting on their ability to engage in normal daily tasks such as attending school or parties then we would recommend seeking help.

Often very little children will cry or have tantrums when they are separated from parents – many parents have experienced this as they drop children off to child minders or nursery. However, for some children, separation anxiety continues through childhood, which can mean going to school, staying at friends' houses or going to parties become very stressful events. Separation panic disorder is when the symptoms of anxiety impact on your child’s life, are persistent and severe in nature.

Separation anxiety is the most common anxiety disorder in children under the age of 122.

1DSM-V

2Costello, E.J., (2005)

4%
It is thought that up to 4% of children suffer with diagnosable separation anxiety.


Symptoms of separation anxiety

  • Extreme anxiety before impending separation
  • Extreme worry and anxiety during the separation including restlessness and crying
  • Excessive worrying about the caregivers’ health and safety
  • Fixation on thoughts of accidents or death during separation
  • Difficulties sleeping far from caregiver, (sleepovers and school trips may be unmanageable)
  • Nightmares based on the theme of separation
  • Reluctance or refusal to attend school
  • Somatic responses such as headaches, stomach aches and vomiting

7
The average age for the onset of separation anxiety is 7

Thank you for all that you have done, not only supporting our child but making it all very painless along the way. We felt very confident with the treatment plan.

Rafa, Leicester


How can I help my child with separation anxiety?

We hear from parents everyday who have tried numerous techniques to help their child with separation anxiety but to no avail.

If you have a child with separation anxiety, the daily routine may be incredibly stressful and attending events without your child or going out for the evening can be impossible.

Whilst each child needs to be treated individually, cognitive behavioural therapies, other talking therapies, parenting support and even antidepressants can all help immensely.

As a first step, your child may benefit from an assessment with a psychiatrist – a doctor with expertise in mental health. Not only with this assessment look at the anxiety symptoms your child is experiencing, but will look at whether there are any other underlying factors or conditions that need to be considered, in order to find the most effective treatment.

If you have concerns, it is always worth consulting with an expert in mental health – early intervention makes a huge difference to outcome.
MBBS, MSc, MRCPsych

Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist
London

Dr Sabina Dosani is a highly experienced Consultant Psychiatrist currently working for the Anna Freud Centre looking after Children and Adolescents. She has a Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery as well as being a member of the Royal College...

 

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