While it’s common for infant, toddlers, and young children to have separation anxiety, most outgrow it by their late childhood. However, a percentage of the population still struggles with the condition into their adulthood. If you are one of these adults, you may wonder how to deal with separation anxiety.
Handling such an anxiety can be difficult to determine as everyone experiences it differently. For example, some may find they only have separation anxiety when their significant other isn’t around. Others may feel this way without an emotional support animal.
Regardless of your circumstances, we’re going to use this article as a way to better understand separation anxiety disorder and how to cope with it. At the end, we invite you to ask further questions.
What is Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Separation anxiety is a type of anxiety disorder that causes symptoms when a person is disconnected with another person. While infants, toddlers, and children tend to develop it, the condition also affects teenagers and adults. ¹ It also occurs in as a separate symptom for other mental illnesses, such as borderline personality disorder (BPD). ²
Separation anxiety symptoms include:
- Abnormal worry about losing a loved one (i.e. in a disaster)
- Anxiety over an event (i.e. being kidnapped) that causes separation
- Continuously severe distress about being away from a loved one or home
- Inability to leave home due to fear of separation
- Nightmares about separation
- Not wanting to be home alone (or without a specific person)
- Physical symptoms (i.e. headaches or stomachaches) when separated from loved one
Separation anxiety is diagnosed when symptoms become excessive and cause significant distress to day-to-day life.
While it’s not always the case, some people with separation anxiety report having panic attacks and developing a panic disorder.
Causes and Risk Factors
The causes of separation anxiety can come from a number of external and internal sources. While researchers still don’t 100% know what causes separation anxiety, we do know it can be caused by:
- Genetics. If a blood relative has any type of anxiety disorder, there’s a greater risk of you developing separation anxiety (or other forms of anxiety). ³
- Life Stresses that resulted in separation. For example, the illness or death of a loved one, loss of a pet, moving to a new place, or the divorce of parents. ⁴
- Environmental Issues that involve separation, such as a natural disaster. ⁵
- Temperaments that a more prone to anxiety disorders. ⁶
How to Deal with Separation Anxiety
In order to treat separation anxiety, it’s beneficial to implement coping mechanisms. Being as this condition affects different age groups, there are varying techniques depending on your age (as detailed below).
However, the best technique for all ages is to simply practice separation for brief periods of time. If you struggle greatly, it can help to keep distances short and attempt to develop an understanding of your feelings. As you continue to practice, continue to separate for longer periods of time at further distances.
How to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Adults
If you’re an adult with separation anxiety, you may find the following techniques beneficial:
- Don’t Ask for Reassurance – While it may provide relief at first, constantly seeking out reassurance is only continuing to fuel separation anxiety. Furthermore, it may lead to what you feat most: rejection.
- Keep Busy – In order to reduce anxiety, it’s beneficial to keep the mind occupied with various tasks. These can include making plans with friends, doing household chores, or participating in your favorite hobby. However, it’s important to not let busyness stress you out as this may further anxiety. ⁷
- Seek Professional Help – Especially if your anxiety is negatively affecting your day-to-day life.
- Try to Develop Positive Thoughts – With anxiety, you’re plagued with negative thought patterns. When separated from a loved one, it’s in your interest to consider the positives of the situation rather than the negatives. ⁸
- Understand Your Emotional Barometer – As an adult, you can recognize that you’re being overly sensitive and your anxiety is produced by false beliefs. This simple understanding can be greatly beneficial in overcoming separation anxiety.
These techniques can also work if you’re wondering how to deal with separation anxiety in a relationship and other age groups.
How to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Teens
Separation anxiety only affects 3.9% of young teenagers (12 to 14) and about 1.3% of teenagers aged 14 to 16. Still, those who do struggle with the condition will find it difficult to complete responsibilities (i.e. school).
As a parent, it can be difficult to manage a teenager in such a position. In turn, you should consider the following techniques:
- Don’t Remove Triggers – While it’s in your best interest to be there for your child, it’s not beneficial to encourage them in avoiding what causes anxiety. In turn, they may never learn how to move past their fears. ⁹
- Instill Confidence – Even when your child approaches a scary situation, it’s important to remind them that they are strong and capable of overcoming these scenarios, even without you.
- Show Support – If you’ve noticed separation anxiety in your teenager (or they have opened up about it), it’s key to be apart of their support system. Adolescence comes with many trials and errors and it’s all a much easier process when a teenager has a strong support system.
These techniques may also be helpful for other age groups, including adults and children.
How to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Children
You may wonder how to help a child with separation anxiety at school or other places you’re not around. Luckily, it’s fairly normal for a child to not want to leave a parent’s side (especially in early ages, such as toddlers). With the right coping strategies, you can help your child overcome these fears and allow them to prosper into adulthood.
- Develop a “Goodbye” Ritual – If your child continuously sees you say goodbye in a similar fashion, they’ll better understand that you’ll also return. This can be as simple as waving “goodbye” through the window or giving them a kiss every time you leave the house.
- Don’t Give Into Your Child’s Separation Anxiety – While this may be difficult for some parents, it’s vital your child learns how to deal with their fears on their own terms. By giving into their anxieties (i.e. sticking around when you need to be somewhere else), you’re only fueling their condition.
- Make New Surroundings Feel Similar – One reason your child may struggle with separation anxiety is because they aren’t comfortable in new environments. In order to relief this stress, you can bring familiar objects with you when you go out (i.e. a favorite toy).
You should practice separation with a child after you’ve taken care of their needs (i.e. naps, feeding, diaper changes, etc.). These practices can also be applied if you’re wondering how to handle separation anxiety in babies.
As with other forms of anxiety, it’s going to take time before you find the right coping mechanisms to overcome your fears. However, also as with other forms of anxiety, it is possible to relieve symptoms and live out a fulfilling life.
Adults with separation anxiety may benefit from different supplements that have been found to relieve stress. As for teenagers, children, and babies, a parent’s guidance will be fundamental in determining how your child overcomes this condition.
Still have questions about how to deal with separation anxiety?
We invite you to ask them in the comments section below. If you have any further advice to share – whether personal or professional – we’d also love to hear from you.
¹ StatPearls [Internet]: Separation Anxiety
² Current Psychiatry Reports: Please Don’t Leave Me-Separation Anxiety and Related Traits in Borderline Personality Disorder
³ Dialogues in clinical neuroscience: Genetics of generalized anxiety disorder and related traits
⁴ The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease: An Exploration of Associations Between Separation Anxiety in Childhood and Complicated Grief in Later Life
⁶ Journal of Affective Disorders: Temperament and character dimensions of patients with adult separation anxiety disorder
⁷ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Mental Health in the Workplace
⁸ Cognitive Therapy and Research: Dimensions of Negative Thinking and the Relations with Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety in Children and Adolescents
⁹ Dialogues in clinical neuroscience: The biology of fear- and anxiety-related behaviors