Generally speaking, it’s expected that a child, especially a young child, will get upset when leaving his or her parents, whether it’s for school, daycare, or a short time with a babysitter. In fact, as a parent, you may also feel a twinge of that same sadness and worry the first few times you have to leave your child in the care of someone else. So what factors elevate a child’s seemingly natural reaction to being separated from a parent to a more serious anxiety disorder?

Like all anxiety disorders, it has to do with proportion. A child who whimpers a bit and clings to your leg when you drop them off is relatively common. But if that same child throws a tantrum, can’t be consoled within a few minutes, or has nightmares in anticipation of being separated, to name a few symptoms, he may be experiencing Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD).

If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone: SAD is the most common anxiety disorder in children. Nearly all children experience a developmental phase (sometimes as early as 7 months) that causes them stress when separated from parents.1 But approximately 1 in 10 children will experience extreme stress that qualifies as Separation Anxiety Disorder. Thankfully, SAD is relatively easy to treat with professional therapy. There are several hallmarks to look for when determining if your child may have Separation Anxiety Disorder. And remember, anxiety disorders don’t happen in a vacuum—your child may be experiencing symptoms from more than one type of anxiety.

What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Typically, Separation Anxiety impacts a child’s ability to participate in expected, age-appropriate activities, such as attending school, having play dates with friends, or participating in extracurricular activities.

A child who experiences extreme distress when separated from (or anticipating separation from) a parent or caregiver may be suffering from Separation Anxiety Disorder. This anxiety disorder typically occurs when a child has to attend school for the first time, but it can also develop earlier for children who attend daycare, spend time with a babysitter, or have parents who travel. It may also occur again (or for the first time) around age 11, coinciding with the beginning of junior high, and at the onset of puberty, around age 13 or 14. It can be triggered by a life event, such as parental illness, divorce, or another traumatic event, but this doesn’t always precipitate a case of SAD. Typically, Separation Anxiety impacts a child’s ability to participate in expected, age-appropriate activities, such as attending school, having play dates with friends, or participating in extracurricular activities.

What Are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder?

In young children, parents tend to see an exceptionally clingy child who has a need for excessive attention. He or she may want to sleep in a parent’s bed at night and, in some extreme cases, not want to be in a separate room even while at home together. For example, a toddler may not want to lose sight of a parent and may throw a tantrum when the parent closes the door to the bathroom.  A 3-year-old may be unable to enjoy daycare because she remains upset all day. An older child may feign an illness in order to be sent home from school or refuse to attend school at all. Tweens and teens may even threaten self-harm. (Though these threats in relation to Separation Anxiety are rarely carried out, they should, of course, should be taken seriously.)

How Do I Know If My Child Has Separation Anxiety Disorder?

If your child has been experiencing symptoms of SAD for a prolonged period of time (typically at least 6 months, but possibly shorter depending on the severity), it’s a good idea to have him or her evaluated by a child psychologist. A psychologist will look for three or more of the following symptoms before offering a diagnosis2:

  • Excessive anguish when separated (or anticipating separation) from parent or caregiver; may be clingy when with parents
  • Irrational fears that something bad may happen to a parent (e.g. scared a parent will get sick or die)
  • Irrational fears that something bad could lead to separation (e.g. scared of kidnapping)
  • Reluctance or refusal to attend school
  • Difficulty falling asleep without being near a parent; may insist on sleeping in bed with parents
  • Repeated nightmares about separation
  • Frequent complaints of physical symptoms (such as headache or stomach ache) when separated or anticipating separation

How Can I Help My Anxious Child?

If your child has been diagnosed with Separation Anxiety Disorder, it’s important to set up a treatment plan with a trusted psychologist. Again, Separation Anxiety Disorder is fairly common in children; however, if left undiagnosed or untreated, it can develop into more serious issues, such as depression, panic attacks, or substance abuse. There are many resources available to help your anxious child. You may want to start with our Psychologist Locator and explore additional articles on this site, including the APA-approved resources on the Bookstore page.

This article was adapted from How to Find Mental Health Care for Your Child, by Ellen B. Braaten, PhD

Reference List

1 What to Do When You Don’t Want to be Apart: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Separation Anxiety Disorder, by Kristen Lavellee, PhD, and Silvia Schneider, Dr. rer. Nat.
2 How to Find Mental Health Care for Your Child, by Ellen B. Braaten, PhD, page 103

Related Books from Magination Press

  • Feel Better Book Little Worries cover

    A Feel Better Book for Little Worriers

    by Holly Brochmann and Leah Bowen

    Worries can feel like a BIG problem to a LITTLE kid!

    A Feel Better Book for Little Worriers assures kids that having some worries is normal — everyone has them, even adults!

    The rhyming narration helps kids to identify a worry and where it might come from, as well as provides them with helpful tools to reduce and cope with worries.

    Includes a Note to Parents and Caregivers with more information on how you can help your little worrier to stay calm. (picture book, ages 3-6)

  • The Magic Box book cover

    The Magic Box: When Parents Can’t Be There to Tuck You In

    by Marty Sederman and Seymour Epstein, PhD

    Casey’s dad has to go away for a couple of days…AGAIN! Casey hates it when his father has to travel. But this time Dad leaves behind a special gift that will help Casey cope with the absence, and with future trips as well. This upbeat and charmingly illustrated book contains a wealth of tips for families in which a parent is often away from home.

    A Note to Parents by Ann Rasmussen, PsyD, helps parents understand what their children are facing, reassures parents of the value of these separations, and suggests many practical techniques for helping the child before, during, and after an absence. (picture book, ages 3-7)

  • Mom, Dad come back soon book cover

    Mom, Dad Come Back Soon

    by Debra Pappas, PhD

    When Tyler’s mom and dad go away for a few days, he gets to stay at his best friend Cindy’s house. Tyler and Cindy play all their favorite games together, and Tyler likes the sailboat in Cindy’s bathtub and the hot cocoa before bedtime. But sometimes he misses his own home and his own parents. With a little help from everyone, he finds ways to get through his “missing” feelings. And by the time Mom and Dad return, he is feeling all the pride and joy that can come with this new growing-up experience.

    Mom, Dad, Come Back Soon contains an extensive afterword by psychologist Jane Annunziata that helps parents understand what their children are facing and suggests many practical coping techniques for use before, during, and after brief separations. (picture book, ages 3-7)

  • What to Do When You Don't Want to Be Apart cover

    What to Do When You Don’t Want to Be Apart: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Separation Anxiety

    by Kristen Lavallee, PhD and Silvia Schneider, Dr.

    Hot air balloon pilots have wonderful adventures, where they get to see things they have never seen before and learn all about the world outside.

    Flying a hot air balloon sounds like a lot of fun to some kids. But for other kids, the idea of flying off on their own, away from their parents or homes, doesn’t sound like fun at all. If you feel scared when you do something alone or away from your parents, this book is for you!

    What to Do When You Don’t Want to Be Apart guides children and their parents through the emotions underlying separation anxiety using strategies and techniques based on cognitive-behavioral principles. This interactive self-help book is the complete resource for educating, motivating, and empowering children to overcome separation anxiety — so they can become the confident pilots of their very own hot air balloons!

    This book is part of the Magination Press What-to-Do Guides for Kids® series. (picture book, ages 6-10)

  • When Fuzzy Was Afraid cover

    When Fuzzy Was Afraid of Losing His Mother

    by Inger Maier, PhD

    While Fuzzy the Little Sheep is out playing with his friends, he falls and skins his knee. He searches for his mother, can’t find her, and feels scared and alone. Fuzzy soon finds his mom, but then he is afraid to let her out of his sight. Fuzzy’s mother has several ideas to help him cope with being away from her, which he practices, and eventually he is able to play comfortably with his friends and not be near her. (picture book, ages 3-7)