Ask An Expert / Anxiety

My son seems to have separation anxiety. Does he need to see somebody? I don’t want him to be labeled.

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Sometimes naming a problem is a good thing

Rachel Busman, PsyD
Rachel Busman, PsyD

Senior Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center; Director, Selective Mutism Service

Child Mind Institute

I have a son who is a few months away from turning 13. He seems to have separation anxiety. Mostly from his mother. I have read about this in young children but not in a soon-to-be teenager. I don't want to blame his mother but she has encouraged this in my mind with always being so close to him. He still wants to sleep in our bed and often winds up there after he wakes up at night. If we do leave him home to go eat or go to the store he will text and call several times while we are gone and ask when we are going to get back. This is fairly new behavior. He used to never want to go anywhere with us when we left the house. Now he never wants to be left at home.I don't know if this is something he needs to see somebody about or not. At the same time I don't want him to be labeled either. I'm just looking for a second opinion here. Any advice you can provide would be appreciated.

This is a great question. Actually, it isn’t uncommon for children who are your son’s age to have problems with separation anxiety. We are used to toddlers and young children having some separation anxiety as a normal part of development, but it is usually resolved fairly easily and most kids do not continue to have problems. What you are describing sounds like separation anxiety disorder, which is characterized by persistent worries about being separated from a caregiver, and often does involve one caregiver more than another. Symptoms can include difficulty falling asleep, protests about going to school, expressed worries about something bad happening to a caregiver, and efforts to stay nearby. With younger children you may see a lot of crying, tantrums, and clinging; with older children, especially ones who have phones, it’s not uncommon to get multiple texts or requests to come home.

I think it would be a very good idea to seek an evaluation from a mental health professional, especially someone who is experienced in the assessment and treatment of anxiety disorders. It sounds like your son might have separation anxiety disorder, but it is important to get a thorough evaluation to make sure. I want to say that as a parent I understand your desire to protect your child from labels that could be harmful. However, you should know that we have excellent treatments for anxiety disorders and it should be a relief to know that what is happening to your son has a name and is very well understood. This isn’t a problem that is likely to go away on its own, but with the correct treatment — most likely something called cognitive behavior therapy — your son can expect to have a good recovery.

You said that you think his mother might have encouraged his anxiety. It is the instinct of many parents to try to help their kids in any way that they can, especially if their child seems to be in distress. Parents might try to swoop in and rescue kids, or allow them to stay close instead of encouraging brave behavior. However well intentioned, it’s true that these things can inadvertently reinforce anxiety. This doesn’t mean that you should blame his mother or yourself, but it does mean that you can both make an effort to start responding to his anxiety differently now. As an important part of your son’s treatment, his therapist should actually be working with you and his mother to teach you both how to respond to his anxiety. Finally, the sooner treatment begins, the better for your son.

Read More:

What Is Separation Anxiety?
How Do I Get My Son to Sleep in His Own Bed?
What to Do (and Not Do) When Kids Are Anxious