Separation Anxiety Disorder: When Goodbyes Get Hard

Does your child feel anxious when you are about to leave them alone? Do they throw a tantrum every time you are about to drop off at a daycare or summer camp? Are they constantly demanding to sleep in your bedroom and not theirs?

If yes, these can be signs of a diagnosable mental health condition termed separation anxiety disorder (SAD). 

While mainstream discussions and research before 2013 deemed separation anxiety disorder a kids’ problem, it is now known to affect adults from any age group. In fact, as per research from Derrick Silove and team, 45% of cases of chronic separation anxiety disorder arise in adulthood with no symptoms during childhood.

In this post, we will dive deeper into what having separation anxiety means, its symptoms, causes, and available treatment options. 

Separation Anxiety Disorder

What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Separation anxiety is characterized by intense fear or worry about being separated from someone you love or a familiar situation. The condition causes severe symptoms like constant stress and worry, abandonment issues, and physical symptoms that affect a person’s daily life. 

Having some degree of separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood. In fact, if children do not experience such feelings, it means that they are not attached to their parents or caregivers. As kids grow up beyond three to four years, the anxiety issues resolve on their own. However, if they persist, the child, teenager, or adult might have SAD. 

Symptoms Of SAD

SAD is a chronic and intrusive condition that affects a person’s personal, professional, and academic life. Many people with SAD are extremely reluctant to leave their homes. Apart from this, children with separation anxiety have ‘clingy’ behavior toward their parents, pets, or caregivers. 

Adults with SAD might feel anxious about leaving their partner, even for a little while. These feelings are accompanied by intense dread and stress. SAD can cause panic attacks when affected individuals are separated from their close attachments or on the verge of such goodbyes. 

Without proper treatment, separation anxiety can lead to complete avoidance of places and situations that have previously been associated with panic attacks or stress. This might eventually lead to loneliness and social anxiety. 

The symptoms of SAD can be divided into three categories – psychological, behavioral, and physical. The psychological symptoms of separation anxiety include the following:

  • constantly being distressed and worried about being away from loved ones,
  • constantly being anxious about the thought of being away from loved ones,
  • worrying about losing a loved one to an accident or illness,
  • not wanting to be alone at home,
  • having nightmares, especially about separation,
  • having irrational fears of the dark, monsters, etc.

The behavioral symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • crying uncontrollably,
  • being clingy,
  • emotional instability,
  • not being able to sleep alone,
  • being socially isolated, etc.

The physical symptoms of SAD (in children) include:

  • headaches, 
  • vomiting, 
  • bedwetting, 
  • stomach aches, 
  • nausea, and
  • problems with sleeping.

Read more: Parenting With A Mental Health Condition

Causes of SAD

Multiple risk factors are associated with the onset of separation anxiety disorder in people. These include:

1. Environmental factors: Changes in and around a person’s familiar environment, including changes in caregivers, routines, family structure, place of living, new school or job, etc., might be potential triggers. Additionally, traumatic events might also be a contributing factor. 

2. Parenting style: Having a secure childhood and good parenting is essential for a child. However, chances of developing separation anxiety arise when they have been brought up in insecure and unhealthy households. Both overly critical and obsessive un-invested parenting styles might be potential causes. 

3. Family history: Research also shows biological factors might be involved in the onset of separation anxiety. A study by Fox & Kalins shows that separation anxiety disorder is 20-40% inheritable from parents. 

Treatment Options

1. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT allows affected individuals to identify the thoughts and emotions sustaining SAD. It also helps them break free from toxic and negative thought patterns and reinforces positive thinking. CBT sessions can help those with SAD to deal with anxiety symptoms and manage their fears.

2. Exposure Therapy

This therapy is built on the age-old idea that facing your fears helps you overcome them eventually. Therefore, exposure therapy usually includes exposing people to their worries and fears and helping them gain confidence and manage anxiety throughout the process.

Read more: Is Managing Your Mental Health During Separation And Divorce Easy?


Separation anxiety disorder is a diagnosable mental health condition defined by an intense fear of being separated from someone you love, your pets, or familiar situations. While it was initially thought to only affect kids, it is now certain that many people develop the condition in adulthood with no childhood history of symptoms. 

Separation anxiety needs timely care and professional help. With the advent of online therapy platforms, getting professional help is now easier than ever. To learn more about them, click here.

To continue learning about mental health disorders, subscribe to Your Mental Health Pal.  

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