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Separation anxiety

When separation triggers extreme or irrational levels of anxiety

Separation anxiety is when someone experiences extreme feelings of anxiety, fear or distress when leaving a loved one. On this page our mental wellbeing advisor, Marianna Kilburn, explains in more detail what this disorder is, what causes it and how it can be treated or managed.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is when the sufferer experiences fear, upset or anxiety when having to leave home or parting from a specific person. While many people feel sad at the thought of having to leave their close friends and family, someone suffering from separation anxiety will experience a greater degree of anxiety symptoms than the situation really deserves.

Separation anxiety is considered to be normal in young children who grow out of it as they become older. However, for some, the tendency lingers well into adulthood.

Sometimes separation anxiety can cross over into something called separation anxiety disorder. This complex and disabling condition gives rise to more intense feelings of anxiety when separating from a loved one.


There is no one single cause for separation anxiety and the problem is thought to arise as a result of a number of factors. Natural shyness can cause a person to be unwilling to reach outside their comfort zone, particularly if this means going to new places or meeting new people.

There are also some parenting traits which are thought to increase the likelihood of separation anxiety in children, including being over-protective. This leads to the child becoming too dependent on one or two people.

Separation anxiety generally diminishes with age. However, it can develop into other forms of anxiety, including anxiety attacks or social anxiety.

What are the signs of separation anxiety?

There are several recognisable signs of separation anxiety. These are seen particularly in children and include:

  • Refusing to leave the person they are attached to, even for short periods of time (eg to take part in a race at sports day)
  • Clinging onto or hiding behind the person they are attached to
  • Crying or throwing a tantrum – this is especially seen in children
  • Fear that harm will come to the person they are attached to if they have been separated
  • Difficulty sleeping when separated
  • Excessive stress, worry or fear when not with the person
  • Physical symptoms such as a sore stomach or a headache without an underlying reason for these pains.

Easing separation anxiety in children

There are certain techniques you can employ to help your child become more accustomed to separation:

  • Try not to create too much fuss when leaving even if your child is beginning to cry. Say goodbye, and then go, so that your child learns you are not going to give in
  • Make sure that your child is being surrounded by familiar friends or faces and responsible people when you are not there, so that they do not associate separation with danger
  • Allowing your child to bring a favourite toy may distract from the separation
  • Do not try to force good separation behaviour if your child is tired or hungry. Practice the separation rituals when your child is likely to respond best.

What treatments are there?

Most children ‘grow out’ of separation anxiety. However, while still experiencing the symptoms, it can be distressing for both child and parent. Seek help if separation anxiety in your child is disruptive and affects other family members.

Symptoms may persist into adulthood in a variety of shapes and forms. If this is the case with you, it may be worth visiting your doctor or considering treatments, particularly if it is beginning to interfere with your personal life or career.

There are a range of treatments which may help with this problem. Often, it is worth looking for a psychological therapy or herbal remedy first as the side-effects of conventional medicines can present their own problems.

  • Talking therapies are effective in allowing the person to release their emotions and then have their thoughts guided by a medical professional. Having an external insight into your feelings and emotions often allows a rational view on the matter. It can also show you how small changes in your life can help
  • There is a range of herbal remedies to help ease symptoms of anxiety. These have been used by herbalists for many years. Valerian, once used as a scent for perfume, is now popular as a natural tranquiliser, calming the nerves and relieving symptoms of anxiety. It can be found in licensed herbal remedies such as Stress Relief Daytime. Similarly, Avena sativa, more commonly known as oats, has been used as a nerve tonic for hundreds of years.

If self-help treatments, psychological therapies and herbal remedies have not helped you, it is important to speak to your doctor as you may be experiencing separation anxiety disorder, or a form of depression. Your doctor will discuss your symptoms with you, and decide on a treatment plan. This may include conventional medicines such as mild sedatives or anti-depressants.

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