Separation Anxiety: Treatment

The first-line treatment for the majority of separation anxiety cases is psychotherapy; cognitive behavioral therapy in particular is used with great success on mild to moderate cases. In more severe cases and with kids who don’t respond well to CBT or other psychotherapeutic approaches, a course of medication may be indicated.

Psychotherapeutic: Treatment for separation anxiety disorder typically involves cognitive behavioral therapy, 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. Doctors might also use relaxation training and teach children to use coping statements.

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 doctors also recommend contingency management, which is a way to reinforce brave behavior by rewarding children for meeting their treatment goals.

Pharmacological: When psychotherapy and behavioral interventions are not adequate to manage symptoms, medication may be prescribed to alleviate a child’s distress and facilitate therapy. 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 inhibitor family. Typical anxiolytics—or anti-anxiety medications—like the benzodiazepines are also effective, though they can be habit forming.