Separation anxiety disorder encompasses a bit more depth than the anguish a child experiences when their mother leaves the house to go out on a date with dad. Separation anxiety disorder is marked by high levels of anxiety when the afflicted child is separated from someone they are emotionally attached to (Subject of Attachment or SOA) such as a mother, father, sister, or brother, and is severe enough to impact their daily functioning. Once the child has developed the ability to identify others as separate entities, they should no longer have a reaction based on irrational fear that when the person of emotional interest leaves the room they are never coming back. Web MD estimates that “separation anxiety affects approximately 4%-5% of children in the U. S. ages 7 to 11 years. It is less common in teenagers, affecting about 1.3% of American teens and affects boys and girls equally.”
Separation Anxiety Symptoms Include:
- Recurring, extreme distress when detached from the subject of attachment (SOA)
- Persistent worrying that the SA will be harmed or disappear permanently
- Recurring nightmares involving separation of the child from the SA
- Excessive fear about being separated or away from the SA
- Refusal to fall asleep without first having exposure to the SA
- Wetting the bed
- Temper tantrums or refusal to attend school/other events without the SA
It is important to note that infants lack the conceptual ability to comprehend time or separation of self from others. Thus, when their mothers leave, they naturally begin to cry. Infant separation anxiety is normal to a degree. However, once cognitive brain functions have developed and the fears continue to reside in children over age 6, this could indicate separation anxiety disorder. The symptoms must also be excessive and last more than four weeks in order to be categorized as separation anxiety disorder.
Children with over-protective parents are more prone to the disorder, as the disease becomes a manifestation of parent anxiety relating to child separation. Thus, both parent and child feed off the other’s anxieties and fuel the disorder’s power. Other variables increase chances of the disorder occurring in a child. For example, WebMD sites that, “separation anxiety often develops after a significant stress or trauma in the child’s life, such as a stay in the hospital, the death of a loved one or pet, or a change in environment, such as moving to another house or a change of schools.”
Treatment for separation anxiety disorder includes psychotherapy as well as medication management. In some cases the child succeeds in recovering from the disorder solely with psychological counseling. Counselors will work with the child to help them understand that they do not need to live in fear and that the subject of emotional attachment is a separate entity in and of itself. Trained professionals will teach the children coping mechanisms to ease agony separation anxiety provokes. Medication is sometimes integrated into the separation anxiety sufferer’s treatment plan. Antidepressants are commonly prescribed, as there often exists an underlying chemical imbalance or depression.