Separation Anxiety: What to Look For

Key warning signs that a child may have separation anxiety disorder are extreme over attachment to parents and a persistent perception that the family is in danger when separated from the child. A child might have a hard time saying goodbye to parents, being alone on one floor of the house, or going to sleep in a darkened room, because she is terrified that something will happen to her or her family. She might also have physical symptoms that manifest in anticipation of separation, including stomachaches, headaches, and dizziness. If she’s at school, she may feel an overwhelming need to know where parents are, and to be in touch with them by phoning or texting.

These symptoms, combined with the fear, can lead to extended absences from school; children with this disorder may also avoid playdates and birthday parties. At home, they often “shadow” one parent constantly; as one clinician puts it, parents can begin to feel like “prisoners.” Vivid nightmares about family tragedy are also possible signs, as are tantrums and apparently defiant behavior when faced with separation. Younger children are mostly anxious at the time of separation, while older kids develop more anticipatory anxiety.