Skip to content ↓

Separation Anxiety Disorder

What is it?

Children with separation anxiety disorder experience significant fear and distress about being away from home or their caregivers. This fear affects a child’s ability to function socially and academically. For example, a child may have a hard time making friends or maintaining relationships because he or she refuses to go on playdates without a parent, or sleep without being near a parent or caregiver.

What causes separation anxiety disorder in a child?

Experts believe SAD is caused by both biological and environmental factors. A child may inherit a tendency to be anxious. An imbalance of 2 chemicals in the brain (norepinephrine and serotonin) most likely plays a part.

A child can also learn anxiety and fear from family members and others. A traumatic event may also cause SAD.

What are the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder in a child?

The first symptoms of SAD often appear around year 3. They may start after a break from school, such as during holidays or summer, or after a long-term sickness. Each child may have different symptoms. But the most common signs of SAD are:

  • Refusing to sleep alone
  • Repeated nightmares with a theme of separation
  • Lots of worry when parted from home or family
  • Too much worry about the safety of a family member
  • Too much worry about getting lost from family
  • Refusing to go to school
  • Fearful and reluctant to be alone
  • Frequent stomachaches, headaches, or other physical complaints
  • Muscle aches or tension
  • Too much worry about safety of self
  • Too much worry about or when sleeping away from home
  • Being very clingy, even when at home
  • Panic or temper tantrums at times of separation from parents or caregivers

Key points about separation anxiety disorder in children

  • SAD is a type of mental health problem. A child with SAD worries a lot about being apart from family members or other close people.
  • The cause of SAD is both biological and environmental.
  • Symptoms of SAD are more severe than the normal separation anxiety that nearly every child has to some degree between the ages of 18 months and 3 years of age.
  • A child must have symptoms that last at least 4 weeks to be considered SAD.
  • A mental health evaluation is needed to diagnose SAD.
  • Treatment includes therapy and medicines.