Separation anxiety is a typical phase for many infants and toddlers. Young children often have a period where they get anxious or distressed when they have to separate from their parent or main caregivers. Examples of this can be tears at daycare drop-off or getting fussy when a new person holds them. This usually starts to improve by about 2 to 3 years of age.

In some children, intense and ongoing separation anxiety is a sign of a more serious condition known as separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety disorder can be identified as early as preschool age.

Your child may have separation anxiety disorder if separation anxiety seems more intense than other kids of the same age or lasts a longer time, interferes with school or other daily activities, or includes panic attacks or other problem behaviors. Most often, separation anxiety relates to the child's anxiety about being away from parents or guardians, but it could relate to another close caregiver.

Less often, separation anxiety disorder can occur in teenagers and adults. This can cause major problems leaving home or going to work.

Treatment can lessen separation anxiety disorder symptoms. Treatment may include specific types of therapy, sometimes along with medicine.


Separation anxiety disorder is diagnosed when symptoms are much more than expected for someone's developmental age and cause major distress or problems doing daily activities. Symptoms may include:

  • Repeated and intense distress when thinking about separation or when away from home or loved ones. This may include being clingy or having tantrums about separation that last longer or are more severe than other kids of the same age.
  • Constant, intense worry about losing a parent or other loved one to an illness, death, or a disaster or harm coming to them.
  • Constant worry that something bad will happen, such as being lost or kidnapped, causing separation from parents or other loved ones.
  • Not wanting to or refusing to be away from home because of fear of separation.
  • Not wanting to be home alone or somewhere without a parent or other loved one close by, if the child has reached an age where being alone might be expected.
  • Not wanting to or refusing to sleep away from home or to go to sleep without a parent or other loved one nearby, if the child has reached an age where these activities might be expected.
  • Repeated nightmares about separation.
  • Repeated complaints of headaches, stomachaches, or other symptoms during or before separation from a parent or other loved one.

Separation anxiety disorder may occur along with panic attacks. Panic attacks are repeated bouts of sudden feelings of intense anxiety and fear or terror that reach a peak within minutes.

When to see a doctor

Separation anxiety disorder usually won't go away without treatment and can lead to panic disorder and other anxiety disorders into adulthood.

If you have concerns about your child's separation anxiety, talk to your child's pediatrician or other healthcare professional.


Sometimes, separation anxiety can be triggered by life stress that results in separation from a loved one. Examples include divorce of parents, changing schools, moving to a new location or a loved one's death. Genetics may play a role in separation anxiety becoming separation anxiety disorder.

Risk factors

Separation anxiety disorder most often begins in childhood. But it may continue into the teenage years and sometimes into adulthood.

Risk factors may include:

  • Life stresses or loss that result in separation. Examples include the illness or death of a loved one, loss of a beloved pet, divorce of parents, or moving or going away to school.
  • Family history. Having blood relatives who have anxiety symptoms or an anxiety disorder may increase the risk of having separation anxiety disorder.
  • Situational issues. Experiencing some type of disaster or traumatic life event may increase the risk of separation anxiety disorder.


Separation anxiety disorder causes major distress and problems functioning at home, in social situations, or at work or school.

Disorders that can occur along with separation anxiety disorder include:

  • Other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, phobias, social anxiety disorder or agoraphobia.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • Depression.


There's no sure way to prevent separation anxiety disorder in your child, but these suggestions may help.

  • Get professional advice as soon as possible if you're concerned that your child's anxiety is much worse than others at the same developmental stage. Early diagnosis and treatment can help lessen anxiety symptoms and keep the condition from getting worse.
  • Follow the treatment plan to help prevent relapses or worsening of symptoms.
  • Get your own evidence-based treatment and support if you have anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns, so that you can model healthy coping skills for your child.
June 12, 2024
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Separation anxiety disorder