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Being separated is always sad, but when the mere thought of it is enough to cause intense anxiety and worry, it could be a sign of separation anxiety.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a deep concern or fear that arises at the thought of being separated from a person, place, or even a pet to which you feel a strong attachment. It can affect people of all ages, from young children to adults, and even our four-legged friends like dogs and cats.

Separation anxiety in different ages and groups

Separation anxiety can be caused by a variety of aspects depending on who is affected. Below are the most common causes for children, adults and pets.

Children

In children, separation anxiety can appear when they begin to understand that their parents or caregivers may leave them, which can cause great anxiety. This is common in children aged 2-3 years, but can also affect children up to the age of 10-11 years. The HSE states that “Separation anxiety is normal. As your child gets older, they learn that you exist even when you are out of sight. As they come to understand that you will return, the anxiety they experience when you leave will reduce.” Specific challenges such as starting kindergarten, parents changing jobs, or children moving away from home can trigger these feelings.

Adults

Adults can also experience separation anxiety, often linked to relationships or major life changes such as changing jobs or ending a breastfeeding period. It can also be related to concerns about being away from their children, partner, or parents.

Pets

Separation anxiety is common in pets, especially dogs and cats, when they are separated from their owners. Dogs may show symptoms such as barking, crying, destroying things, or showing signs of anxiety as the owner prepares to leave the house.

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Symptoms and signs

Symptoms of separation anxiety can vary according to age and individual. In children, it can include crying, clinginess, fear of being alone, and difficulty sleeping. Adults may feel intense worry, depression, and even physical symptoms such as heart palpitations or nausea. Pets may show signs such as excessive barking, depression, or chewing on furniture.

How to deal with separation anxiety?

Dealing with separation and life changes can be challenging, but there are ways to make the process easier for both humans and animals. Here are some strategies and tips for dealing with these situations.

Understanding and acceptance

The first step in dealing with feelings of anxiety and worry during major changes or separations is to acknowledge and understand these feelings. It is important to remember that it is perfectly normal to feel anxious in these circumstances. By accepting these feelings, we can start working with them in a constructive way.

Strategies for children

For children, separations can be particularly difficult. One way to help them is to introduce routines and predictability into their daily lives, which can create a sense of security. Short and calm goodbyes, followed by quick reunions, can also be effective. It teaches children that separations are temporary and that their parents or guardians will come back.

Adults and relationships

For adults, communication is key to dealing with separation and change. It is important to share feelings and thoughts with friends or a partner. It can also be helpful to consider therapy or counseling, especially if the anxiety has a noticeable impact on daily functioning. Talking to a professional can provide new perspectives and coping strategies.

Pets

Pets, just like people, can experience separation anxiety. One way to help them is to gradually train them to be alone. Start with short periods and then gradually increase the time. Also, make sure they have enough stimulation and activity to keep them busy and happy.

Professional help

In some cases, especially when the situation is more serious, it may be appropriate to seek professional help from a psychologist or therapist. This applies to both humans and animals. If you feel that you or your pet are having difficulty dealing with these situations on your own, don’t hesitate to contact a specialist.


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The road to recovery

Dealing with separation anxiety is a process that often requires patience and understanding. Seeking help from one of our therapists or psychologists is an important step for both the person experiencing the anxiety and their loved ones.

Therapy and counseling

  • Psychological counseling: A psychologist can offer strategies and tools to manage the anxiety. This may include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps to identify and change negative thought patterns.
  • Support groups: Attending support groups can provide opportunities to share experiences and learn from others going through similar situations.
  • Family therapy: Sometimes it can be beneficial to involve the whole family in the therapy process, especially when children are involved.

Self-help techniques

  • Breathing exercises and mindfulness: These practices can help control anxiety levels and promote relaxation.
  • Positive reinforcement: Use positive reinforcement to encourage and reinforce independence, both in children and pets.
  • Information and education: Learning more about separation anxiety and its effects can provide a better understanding of how to manage the situation.

Adapting your lifestyle

  • Work/life balance: Create a healthy work/life balance. Make sure to spend quality time with family, friends and pets.
  • Healthy diet and physical activity: A healthy lifestyle can help reduce stress and improve overall well-being.
  • Encourage independence: For children and pets, encourage independence by giving them small tasks and responsibilities that they can handle on their own.

The future: Hope and change

Separation anxiety is a challenge, but it is important to remember that there is hope and opportunity for change. With the right support, strategies and understanding, individuals and their loved ones can learn to manage the anxiety and live a fuller and richer life.

If you recognise yourself in these descriptions and need support, do not hesitate to contact us. Our team of qualified psychologists and therapists are here to help you on your journey to recovery.

Preventive measures and long-term strategies

Preventing and managing separation anxiety requires both immediate and long-term strategies. It is important to understand that preventive measures can play a major role in reducing the risk of severe anxiety.

Parents and caregivers

  • Early attachment: Build a secure and loving relationship with your child from the beginning. This can create a foundation of safety and trust.
  • Communication and understanding: Learn to recognise and respond to your child’s needs. An open dialogue about feelings and fears can strengthen the bond and reduce anxiety.
  • Gradual exposure: Encourage your child to gradually face situations that cause anxiety. This can help them build confidence and independence.

For adults

  • Personal development: Work on personal development and self-awareness. Understanding the causes of your anxiety can help you manage it effectively.
  • Building support networks: Create and maintain a support network of family, friends and professionals. These relationships can offer support and understanding.
  • Lifestyle adjustments: Lifestyle adjustments, such as regular exercise and stress management techniques, can help reduce symptoms of anxiety.

For pets

  • Early socialisation: Expose your pet to different environments and situations from a young age. This can help them become more confident when they are alone.
  • Consistent routine: A consistent daily routine can give pets a sense of security and predictability.
  • Mental and physical stimulation: Make sure your pet gets enough mental and physical stimulation to prevent anxiety and boredom.

Turn to us

Separation anxiety is a complex and multidimensional challenge, but with the right tools and support it is possible to overcome it. Whether for children, adults, or pets, the key to success is understanding the anxiety, working through it, and seeking support when needed.

If you or someone you know is struggling with separation anxiety, it is important to remember that you are not alone. Our service offers contact with psychologists and therapists who are ready to make the difficult easier.


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24 common questions and answers about separation anxiety

How do you know if you have separation anxiety?

Self-compassion is the ability to be kind and understanding to yourself, especially during difficult times. It involves treating oneself with the same care and understanding as one would treat a good friend, and includes three main components: self-kindness, community of humanity, and mindfulness. These aspects help individuals to acknowledge their faults and shortcomings without being too hard on themselves.

What helps with separation anxiety?

Treatment for separation anxiety can vary depending on the person and severity. Common methods include therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps the individual manage and understand their emotions. Relaxation techniques, regular exercise, and maintaining a healthy routine can also be beneficial.

How does separation anxiety manifest itself in children?

In children, separation anxiety can manifest itself through crying, anger, or clinginess when separated from parents or caregivers. Children may also express concern that something will happen to their parents when they are not present. This is normal at certain stages of development, but if it becomes excessive or lasts longer than usual, it can be a sign of separation anxiety.

When do babies start having separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety can start to appear in babies around 6-7 months of age. It is part of normal development where the child begins to understand and recognise their parents and caregivers. This anxiety tends to peak around 12-18 months of age and usually subsides as the child gets older.

Is separation anxiety more common in children or adults?

Separation anxiety is most common in children, especially between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, as they begin to understand and react to separation from their parents or caregivers. However, adults can also experience separation anxiety, often triggered by major life changes, relationship difficulties or other stressors.

Can pets suffer from separation anxiety?

Yes, pets, especially dogs, can experience separation anxiety. This can manifest itself through destructive behavior, howling or barking, and general restlessness when left alone. It is important to apply gradual habituation and sometimes professional behavioral training to help them deal with the anxiety.

What role do heredity and environment play in the development of separation anxiety?

Both genetic and environmental factors can contribute to the development of separation anxiety. Children of parents with anxiety disorders may be more likely to develop anxiety disorders, including separation anxiety. Environmental factors such as stress at home, overprotective parents or early separation from parents can also increase the risk.

How can parents help their children deal with separation anxiety?

Parents can help by creating a safe and predictable environment. It is helpful to practice short separations and gradually increase the time the child spends away from the parent. Positive reinforcement and calming routines when saying goodbye can also be helpful. In severe cases, consultation with a child psychologist may be necessary.

Are there any long-term effects of untreated separation anxiety?

Untreated separation anxiety can lead to long-term problems, such as chronic anxiety, relationship problems and difficulties with emotional regulation. Therefore, it is important to seek professional help if the separation anxiety seems to be long-lasting or seriously affects the person’s daily life.

Can separation anxiety lead to other mental health problems?

Yes, untreated separation anxiety can increase the risk of other mental health problems such as depression, panic disorder and other anxiety disorders. It is therefore important to seek early help and support to manage symptoms effectively.

Is it possible to completely get rid of separation anxiety?

With the right treatment and support, most people can manage and reduce their symptoms of separation anxiety. Intensity can vary from person to person, but many learn successful strategies to manage their anxiety and live a full and healthy life.

What type of therapy is recommended for the treatment of separation anxiety?

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often effective for treating separation anxiety. CBT helps individuals identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to their anxiety. For children, play-based therapy and family therapy can also be beneficial.

How can teachers and school staff help children with separation anxiety?

Teachers and school staff can support children with separation anxiety by creating a predictable and safe school environment. Encouragement, patience and helping the child develop independence and social skills are important. Work with parents and school psychologists to create a coherent management strategy.

How to distinguish normal separation anxiety from an anxiety disorder?

While mild separation anxiety is a normal part of development, especially in young children, it becomes an anxiety disorder when it causes significant stress or disruption to daily functioning. If the anxiety is intense, lasts longer than is typical for the child’s age, or interferes with normal activities, it may be an anxiety disorder.

Do cultural factors affect the experience of separation anxiety?

Yes, cultural norms and parenting practices can influence how separation anxiety is experienced and managed. Some cultures promote early independence, while others emphasise close family ties, which can affect a child’s reactions to separation. It is important to understand and respect these cultural differences when dealing with separation anxiety.

Can changes in daily routine help alleviate separation anxiety?

Yes, creating a consistent and predictable daily routine can help reduce separation anxiety. Routines provide a sense of security and predictability, which can be particularly comforting for children and adults experiencing separation anxiety.

How to deal with recurrent separation anxiety in older children?

For older children who experience recurrent separation anxiety, it is important to encourage independence while offering support and understanding. Communication, encouraging social activities, and gradually exposing the child to situations that cause anxiety can be helpful. Professional counseling can also be considered.

Is there a link between separation anxiety and school performance?

Yes, separation anxiety can affect a child’s school performance. Anxiety can lead to concentration problems, absence from school and difficulties in participating in school activities. Support from parents, teachers and school psychologists is essential to help these children succeed in school.

How can adults manage their own separation anxiety?

For adults experiencing separation anxiety, it is important to work on identifying and managing the underlying causes of the anxiety. Seeking professional help, developing healthy coping strategies such as mindfulness and relaxation techniques, and maintaining strong social networks can be effective ways to manage the anxiety.

Can life events such as moving or divorce cause separation anxiety?

Yes, major life events such as moving or divorce can trigger or exacerbate separation anxiety in both children and adults. Such events can disrupt feelings of security and predictability, making it important to seek support and deal with the changes in a healthy way.

Is it common to feel anxious about your child starting school?

It is quite common for parents to experience some anxiety when their child starts school, especially if it is the first child or if the child has had previous separation anxiety. Talking about these feelings and preparing yourself and your child for this transition can help alleviate the anxiety.

How can a parent build a child’s confidence to deal with separation anxiety?

To boost a child’s confidence, encourage independence through small steps and provide positive reinforcement. Activities that build on the child’s interests and strengths can also be helpful. Being a stable and supportive presence is also important to give the child peace of mind.

How to deal with separation anxiety in teenagers?

Managing teenage separation anxiety requires a balance between support and allowing for independence. Encourage open communication, listen to their concerns and involve them in finding solutions. In some cases, it may be appropriate to seek professional help.

Can physical activity and exercise help to manage separation anxiety?

Yes, regular physical activity and exercise have been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety and improving overall well-being. Exercise releases endorphins, which are natural mood enhancers, and can help reduce stress and improve sleep quality.

Dealing with separation anxiety: step by step

Separation anxiety can be a challenge for both the person experiencing it and their loved ones. Here is a step-by-step guide that can help you begin the process of managing and overcoming separation anxiety.

1: Understanding separation anxiety

The first step is to understand what separation anxiety is. It is a deep concern and fear of being separated from people or places that provide security. This anxiety is normal in children, but can also affect adults.

2: Identifying the causes

The next step is to identify the specific situations or people that trigger the anxiety. It could be parting from a partner, children, or a place. Understanding these triggers is key to managing the anxiety.

3: Seek professional help

Next, consider seeking professional help. Psychologists and therapists can provide support and tools to manage the anxiety. Our service offers contact with qualified therapists both online and in person.

4: Developing self-help strategies

The fourth step involves developing self-help strategies. This can include relaxation techniques, mindfulness, and positive affirmations. Diary writing can also be an effective way to manage emotions and thoughts.

5: Build a supportive network

In addition, build a supportive network. Talk to family, friends or others who have gone through similar experiences. Knowing that you are not alone can be a great comfort.

6: Take small steps

Last but not least, take small steps. Start with short periods of separation and gradually increase the time. This can help you gradually become comfortable with the separation.

Dealing with separation anxiety is a process that requires time and patience. Remember that professional help is available and can be a valuable resource in your journey. Also remember that you are not alone and that there are many people who understand and can support you through this challenge.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.