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  • Navigating Separation Anxiety Disorder

    It is that time of year!  

    School is about to begin and many children will be going to school for the first time.  I still remember my first day of kindergarten! I was both excited and nervous at the same time. There were friends I knew that would be in my class, but to be honest, my teacher scared me! I smile as I look back as I am sure she was kind, but in my five year old brain, she was scary.  

    While some students will enter kindergarten,  other students will be entering a new school whether it is because of a family move, entering middle school, or entering high school. 

    For some, this is an exciting time.  There is the opportunity for new friends, activities, and learning.  However, for others, this is a time of great distress.  Anxiety runs high. There is the possibility of not having friends, of being bullied, of getting lost on the way to class, of getting a bad grade, of not being chosen for a team in PE.  

    School can be difficult! 

    There are some children who will experience separation anxiety.  This is a condition that occurs past the developmentally appropriate age, that causes significant distress for the child or teen when they are away from their attachment figure (usually primary caregiver.)  

    If you have a child or teen that experiences separation anxiety, and it extends for a significant amount of time (over four weeks), it is recommended to see a child therapist.  It will benefit both your child and you.  Seeing your child struggle when he or she is away from you is hard on you as a parent as well as difficult for your child.  

    You may know about separation anxiety in childhood, but what about in adulthood? 

    Can Adults Experience Separation Anxiety?

    Yes, adults can experience separation anxiety disorder. 

    Many times we think of separation anxiety as something children experience. Between the ages of six months and three years old, this is a developmental pattern that occurs with some children.  

    At times, children continue to experience separation anxiety when they begin school, spend the night at a friend’s house, go away to camp, or are away from their parents for any length of time. 

    Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is diagnosed after the age of 3 and the symptoms are intense, prolonged, and cause significant distress in the level of functioning for at least four weeks (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). 

    In adulthood, the symptoms must be present for at least six months, the symptoms are severe, cause significant impairment in social functioning, and are not explained by another mental health diagnosis or medical condition (APA, 2013). 

    Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder (APA, 2013)

    • High anxiety or stress when you are going to be (or are) separated from a loved one

    • Fear that something bad will happen to your loved one such as kidnapping, accident, death

    • Nightmares or dreams with the theme of separation

    • Physical complaints such as stomach aches or headaches when away from a loved one or the anticipation of being away from a loved one.

    • Difficulty leaving home or going places where you are away from your loved ones.

    Causes of SAD in Adulthood

    Adults who experienced separation anxiety disorder in childhood have a higher risk of experiencing it in adulthood.  There is a vulnerability in the nervous system. 

    Adults who experience post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other anxiety disorders, or even some personality disorders may be at a greater risk of developing SAD in adulthood. 

    Events, or situations, can also increase the risk of developing separation anxiety disorder in adulthood.  These include…

    • Death of a loved one
    • Moving to a new area far from family
    • Pandemic
    • Natural disaster
    • Illness.

    Treatment of SAD

    Healing is possible! There are ways that you can reduce the experience of SAD, increase your level of functioning, and experience joy in social situations even if you are apart from your loved ones.  There are several forms of evidence based therapy that are known to assist in the process.  These include:

    • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) – through identifying the fears, the negative core beliefs associated with the separation anxiety, the felt body sensations, and any early experiences that may contribute,  EMDR helps reprocess the material that may be “stuck” in your brain and allows you to heal.

    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – this identifies the way your thoughts impact your feelings and your behaviors.  It will help you navigate what thoughts are based on thinking errors (cognitive distortions) and through the help of your therapist you can challenge the thoughts, replace the thoughts with truth, and in turn your feelings and behaviors will shift.

    • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) – you will learn ways to reduce distress, tolerate uncomfortable emotion, learn to be present in the moment through mindfulness skills, and experience more positive relationships.  These skills are important for everyone to know. 

    You can recover!  

    There is nothing “wrong with you.”  At Wellspring, we firmly believe that there are reasons for the struggles you face, and through therapy, you can overcome them.  

    Whether it is healing from painful experiences in your past that underlie a fear of being away from loved ones, navigating current life situations and the heightened possibility of loss, or developing ways to manage the increased anxiety that you feel, you can live a full life. 

    Reach Out Today! 

    American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).