The Causes of Separation Anxiety in Children

The Causes of Separation Anxiety in Children

It can be quite frustrating to watch your child go through separation anxiety. Moreover, it can be especially challenging to watch your child grapple with separation anxiety disorder.  In most cases, separation anxiety subsides within 5 minutes, but in some cases, the anxiety persists through adolescence. It is important to note that most, if not all, children experience some degree of separation anxiety.

The difference between “normal” separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder is that “normal” separation anxiety is a temporary response to being separated from a loved one or placed in a new and unfamiliar environment, while a separation anxiety disorder is a long-term condition that interferes with the child’s ability to function at school and at home.

It is important to note that mild separation anxiety is a “normal” part of the development process. In fact, this type of anxiety not only prepares children for temporary separations, it also helps build their self-esteem and self-confidence. One of the best ways to help your child effectively cope with separation anxiety disorder is to determine the cause of the condition. Offering children with this condition love and support can go a long way in helping them feel more confident, secure and self-assured.

Separation anxiety symptoms may include: a reluctance to go to school or attend public events, temper tantrums when separated from loved ones, preoccupation with death and dying, clinginess, illogical fear of abandonment and a “doom and gloom”mentality. Although the cause of separation anxiety varies, factors like growth and development, chemical imbalances, genetics and normal bodily reactions can contribute to its development and progression. If you are wondering what causes separation anxiety in children –  This article will help you get to the root of separation anxiety in children.

Listed below are possible causes of separation anxiety disorders in children:

  • Healthy Growth and Development 

This may sound odd, but separation anxiety is an essential part of the “normal” aging process. In other words, temporary separation anxiety is not only healthy, but important for a child’s  growth and development. During the infancy stage of development, babies develop a fear of sudden movements and loud noises. This fear comes in handy as the children grow because it protects them from danger.

It is also “normal” for infants and toddlers to experience distress when separated from a loved one (i.e. parent or caregiver). Although this can be unnerving for parents, it is a sign of healthy growth and development. Temporary separations not only teach your child how to function independently,  they also help your child develop self-esteem and self-confidence.

  • Chemical Imbalances 

Chemical imbalances can also cause separation anxiety in children. In other words, a chemical imbalance in your child’s brain can trigger separation anxiety attacks or separation anxiety disorder. Neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin (brain chemicals that transmit messages from the brain to tissues and organs) help regulate your child’s thoughts, emotions and behaviors.

A neurotransmitter imbalance can cause mood swings, depression and anxiety. Children who experience anxiety attacks every time you leave them or who become physically ill (i.e. tummy aches, muscle aches, fatigue, insomnia, headaches/migraines, etc.) at the thought of being separated from you  – may need professional help. 

  • Genetics and Environmental Influences

Although, it is not a proven fact, genetics and environmental influences appear to contribute to separation anxiety in children. In other words, some children have a higher risk of developing separation anxiety than others. Why? If a mental illness or psychological disorder (i.e. anxiety disorders or depression) runs in your family, your child will have a higher chance of developing a similar, if not the same, condition.

In particular, if you have a family history of anxiety, your child may be more susceptible to developing separation anxiety or separation anxiety disorder. Moreover, if fear or anxiety is modeled within the home, your child will more than likely exhibit those same behaviors. Furthermore, children who were excessively clingy or irritable as babies may have a harder time separating from loved ones than children who were even tempered as babies.

  • Automatic Bodily Reactions 

As mentioned previously, it is “normal” for children to experience some degree of separation anxiety. This anxiety is temporary, and typically subsides the children “settle down” and relax. This anxiety stems from a natural, automatic bodily reaction (i.e. fight & flight mechanisms) to a perceived danger, which in this case is the fear of losing a loved one and being abandoned. The fear of harm or danger provokes a natural reaction such as: a racing heart, dilated pupils and perspiration.

The purpose of this reaction is to alert the children to a possibly dangerous situation so they can protect themselves. These children may not understand what is happening to them and become fearful and anxious. If this reaction occurs every time the children are separated from loved ones or confronted with a new and unfamiliar situation, they may begin to associate being separated from loved ones with this automatic bodily reaction. It is important to note that separation anxiety should decline as the children age and start to feel more independent, exploratory and protected.



Robinson, L., Segal, J., & Smith, M. (2104). Separation anxiety in children.          Retrieved from             htm

Tracy, N. (2012). Separation anxiety in children: How to help your child. Healthy Place.   Retrieved from     children/separation-anxiety-in-children-how-to-help-your-child/

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