Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder in ChildrenApproximately 5% of American children, between the ages 7 and 11 years old, experience some degree of separation anxiety when separated from a loved one or confronted with an unfamiliar situation.  Although this type of anxiety typically occurs in children under the age of 12, it can also affect teenagers, and in some cases, young adults. In fact, approximately 2% of American teenagers have or will experience separation anxiety at some time during their development. It is important to note that this type of anxiety generally affects females and males equally. While it is normal for an adolescent (i.e. child or teenager) to experience temporary separation anxiety, if it persists, reoccurs or worsens over time, it may signal a separation anxiety disorder.

Separation anxiety disorder is a chronic psychological condition that occurs when a separation from a loved one (i.e. parent, relative, close friend, etc.) causes a child to become overly anxious, apprehensive and/or “panicky.” In addition, it is common for children with this condition to develop an intense fear of monsters, nighttime, animals, kidnappers, heights, the unknown, car accidents, death, burglars or other situations that they deem dangerous or harmful to loved ones. Children who exhibit symptoms of separation anxiety disorder are more likely to have a preoccupation with death and dying. These children may also have a habit of avoiding school or other public venues. In other words, they may throw tantrums when it is time to go to school or attend social events. Refusing to attend school can cause a decline in grades and social isolation (i.e. reclusivity).

Moreover, children with this condition may report feeling unloved. These children may also state that they want to die. Furthermore, the thought of being separated from their loved ones may cause them to lash out (i.e. kicking, biting, hitting, etc.) in anger at the person or people they hold responsible for the separation. In addition, young children may report seeing supernatural beings like: ghosts, angels, demons, monsters and/or aliens. This article will help you better understand this condition so you can help your child live a carefree and confident life.


Separation anxiety disorder symptoms vary depending on the child’s mental and physical health, family dynamics or age. One of the main differences between “normal” separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder is that separation anxiety disorder interferes with a child’s  ability to function. In other words, this condition prevents children with disorder from experiencing “normal” emotional and social growth and development. The intense fear prevents these children from thinking and behaving like children. Even the thought of being away from loved ones terrifies anxious children to the point that they are paralyzed with fear. During a separation-related anxiety attack, these children may also complain of physical ailments such as: a headache or stomachache. It is important to note that “normal” separation anxiety is temporary, while a separation anxiety disorder is chronic (i.e. recurrent).

Listed below are common symptoms associated with separation anxiety disorder in children:

  • Refusal to go to school and/or attend social events 

Children with separation anxiety disorder will do whatever it takes to avoid going to school or attending a social event (i.e. a party, get-together, holiday celebrations, etc.). These children are afraid to leave loved ones for fear that something tragic will happen to them.

  • Reluctance to go to sleep 

It is not uncommon for children with this condition to be reluctant to go to sleep, either during nap time or at bedtime. In fact, many children with separation anxiety disorder complain of feeling tired and sleepy during the day because they were unable or unwilling  to go to sleep at night. These children believe if they go to sleep they will not wake up or a loved one will die – leaving them alone.

  • Chronic aches and pains 

Children with separation anxiety disorder may constantly complain of physical ailments like: stomachaches, headaches or migraines, muscle aches or cramps, etc. when separated from a loved one or faced with a new or unfamiliar situation. These ailments may “pop up” before or during the separation.

  • Clinginess 

Children with separation issues may mercilessly cling to a loved one. They may also follow the loved one around the house – never letting that person out of their vision. If the loved one leaves, these children may experience an anxiety attack.

  • Unrelenting fear that a loved one will be harmed or killed 

One of the most common fears associated with separation anxiety disorder is  an unrelenting fear that a loved one will be harmed or killed. This not only creates feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, it also triggers an anxiety attack. These children obsess and worry that something horrible will happen to loved ones outside of their presence. For example, children with this condition may constantly worry that a parent will be hurt or killed in a car accident. 

  • Illogical  fear of abandonment 

It is common for children with separation anxiety disorder have an illogical fear of abandonment.  In other words, children with this condition may fear that something will happen to loved ones that prevent them from returning. For example, these children may worry that their mother will be killed, die from illness, be kidnapped or simply leave and not return.

  • Chronic Nightmares or Night Terrors 

Children with separation anxiety disorder may experience nightmares or night terrors, in which “bad things” happen to loved ones. These “bad things” may include death, murder, injuries, etc. 

***It is important to note that children who exhibit separation anxiety symptoms should be examined by a trained mental health professional who can teach them how to manage and/or improve their condition.


Psych Central. (2014). Separation anxiety disorder symptoms. Retrieved from   

WebMD. (2014). Separation anxiety in children. Retrieved from   

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