Separation anxiety in childhood is quite normal, and virtually all kids will exhibit separation difficulties at one time or another, to one degree or another. Children are wired to be attached to their caregivers, and so having to separate from them is naturally distressful.
Prevalence of separation anxiety disorder in children
Research on the topic suggests that around 3.5% to 4.1% of children may develop separation anxiety disorder. (Choate et al., 2005) This occurs when a child seems unable to detach in a healthy way and their fear of separation grows severe enough that it causes significant disruptions in the child’s life and/or that of their family. It’s more common among younger children, but people can struggle with separation issues even into adulthood.
The definition of separation anxiety disorder (SAD)
According to the American Psychiatric Association, separation anxiety disorder is characterized by “developmentally inappropriate and excessive anxiety concerning separation from home or from those to whom the individual is attached.”
Though there is no clear diagnostic criteria to define “excessive,” this is generally deemed to be a reaction more intense and longer-lasting than what might be expected from a typical child of this age. Such episodes should also occur consistently for at least a month before being considered genuine attachment anxiety. (See signs and symptoms of separation anxiety in the next section.)
Problems caused by a child’s separation anxiety
Although separation struggles may be common, severe separation anxiety can be quite disruptive and create a number of problems for both parents and children. Separation anxiety makes normal routines for school or other transitions difficult, adding a great deal of stress to daily life. Left unchecked, this added stress can impact a child’s brain in unhealthy ways.
It can also create developmental problems in the child. Separation anxiety tends to preclude children from participating in many of the things their peers enjoy, such as spending time socializing with friends. It can lead to learning problems at school, since a child may be overly preoccupied with anxious thoughts when they should be concentrated on learning.
A child’s separation anxiety may affect the entire family, limiting the activities that parents can engage in or creating conflicts that affect a sibling. So it’s a problem that parents should address.