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“Mommy, Don’t Go!”: Separation Anxiety Disorder

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album
Reviewed by Heidi Radunovich, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

If your child attended daycare, it’s a scene you’re probably familar with: a little one clinging to mom or dad and crying as the parent tries to get out the door for the day.  Sometimes mom or dad looks upset, too!

This is separation anxiety, a normal stage that many children experience in the latter half of their first year. It typically fades around the time children turn two, although some children experience bouts of it off and on into the preschool years.

At times, however, separation anxiety lasts much longer, and becomes an issue of true concern. If a child is over 6 years old and still experiencing major issues separating from caregivers, it may be time to consider whether the child has developed separation anxiety disorder, or SAD.

Children with SAD often refuse to go to school or to sleep alone. They may have frequent nightmares or complain of headaches or stomachaches. Frequently, they worry that something bad will happen unless they remain with their caregiver at all times. This situation can be upsetting and exhausting for parents and children alike.

Fortunately, there is help for families whose children experience SAD. Research suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy may be effective for children experiencing this disorder. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, is a structured, time-limited type of therapy that helps people become aware of and change unproductive thinking patterns.

It also can be crucial to involve the parents in therapy. One recent study showed that parents of children with this diagnosis often held dysfunctional beliefs about parenting—for instance, that the world was very dangerous, or that their children’s unhappiness meant they had failed as a parent.

Separation anxiety disorder is treatable, especially when families get help early. However, symptoms may recur during stressful times, and children with this issue are at increased risk of developing anxiety or mood problems. If you think your child may be experiencing SAD, speak to your pediatrician or a mental health practitioner.

(Photo credit: First day of school by Isaac Boateng. CC BY 2.0. Cropped.)

References:

Herren, C., In-Albon, T., & Schneider, S. (2013). Beliefs regarding child anxiety and parenting competence in parents of children with separation anxiety disorder. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 44(1), 53-60. doi:10.1016/j.jbtep.2012.07.005

Mayo Clinic staff. (2013). Separation anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/separation-anxiety/DS01173

Schneider, S., et al. (2013). The efficacy of a family-based cognitive-behavioral treatment for separation anxiety disorder in children aged 8–13: a randomized comparison with a general anxiety program. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0032678

WebMD. (2012). Separation anxiety in children. Retrieved from http://children.webmd.com/guide/separation-anxiety

(Originally published in a slightly different form as: Church, C. (2013). Separation anxiety disorder. [Radio broadcast episode]. Family Album Radio. Gainesville, FL:  University of Florida.)