Separation Anxiety: Treatment

Separation anxiety disorder is treated by behavioral therapy. In more severe cases, children who don’t respond well to therapy may also benefit from medication.

Psychotherapeutic: Treatment for separation anxiety disorder typically involves cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT. This is a treatment approach that helps children learn to understand and manage their fears. Exposure therapy, a specialized form of CBT, might also be used. Exposure therapy works by carefully exposing children to separation in small, controlled doses, helping to reduce their anxiety over time. CBT also teaches kids coping skills that they can rely on when they are feeling anxious.

Because parents can inadvertently reinforce anxiety when they are comforting anxious children, treatment frequently also involves parent training on how to respond to anxiety. Some clinicians also recommend contingency management, which is a way to reinforce brave behavior by rewarding children for meeting their treatment goals.

Pharmacological: When therapy is not enough to help a child manage her symptoms, she may be prescribed a medication to alleviate her distress and make therapy more effective. A variety of medications have been shown to be effective in treating separation anxiety disorder; the first-line medication is one of the SSRIs, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. Typical anxiolytics — or anti-anxiety medications — like the benzodiazepines are also effective, though they can be habit forming.

What to Do (and Not Do) When Children Are Anxious