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Separation Anxiety: Is It Normal?

written by: alexisaiger • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 2/2/2011

The signs of separation anxiety can be difficult to interpret and many parents find themselves wondering if their child's behavior is normal. This article explores the signs of separation anxiety as they relate to normal childhood development and the more serious separation anxiety disorder.

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    Normal vs. Abnormal Separation Anxiety

    Young children often display fearful and anxious reactions to being separated from parents. These feelings often cause parents to question whether this behavior is normal or part of a larger, underlying anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety that does not interfere with a child’s daily functioning is a normal part of child development. Therefore, parents do not need to worry unless the symptoms of separation anxiety become so excessive that they interfere with their child’s academic, extracurricular, or personal life.

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    Normal Separation Anxiety

    Children develop strong bonds and attachments to primary caregivers. For this reason, it is only natural that a child will experience some worry when separated from a caregiver. To express this worry, or anxiety, a child may cry or cling to that person. This anxiety is expressed at the time of separation, rather than in anticipation of the separation, and may occur from the time the child is a few months old and throughout the pre-school years. When, or if this behavior occurs and how severe the signs of separation anxiety are depends on the child. While one child may cling to the caregiver and cry intensely when dropped off at daycare, another child of the same age may leave their caregiver with little to no resistance.

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    Separation Anxiety Disorder

    Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development. However, when the signs of separation anxiety become excessive and interfere with the child’s daily life, the child may suffer from separation anxiety disorder. For accurate diagnosis, parents should consult a mental health professional.

    According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health (4th edition, revised), separation anxiety disorder is diagnosed when a child under the age of 18 suffers from signs of separation anxiety that are excessive and inappropriate and last for more than four weeks. While normal separation anxiety includes feelings of fear and anxiety at the time of separation, separation anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive fear and anxiety at the mere thought or anticipation of separation. The child may also suffer from anxiety surrounding the possibility of losing the primary caregiver or fear that an unanticipated event will cause separation. Children who suffer from separation anxiety disorder may have nightmares relating to separation and find it difficult to sleep alone or without the primary caregiver nearby.

    A child with separation anxiety disorder will try to avoid separation in order to prevent the occurrence of the intense feelings of worry associated with separation. This avoidance may take the form of the child trying to avoid attending school, never wanting to sleep away from home, or refusing to be alone. When separation occurs or is anticipated, the child may complain of physical ailments, such as headaches or stomachaches. This avoidance behavior negatively affects the child's academic and personal life. As such, if you suspect your child suffers from separation anxiety beyond that of normal childhood development, it is recommended that you consult with a mental health professional.