Understanding Separation Anxiety

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Jeremy Fink, LCSW, provides psychotherapy to adults, children, adolescents, and couples and is the Director of The Dynamic Counseling Center.  He has extensive experience ...Read More

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) defines separation-anxiety as recurrent or excessive distress in anticipation of separation from a caregiver, generally a parent or primary attachment figure. A child’s fear of being separated from his parents can manifest as school phobia/refusal, worry about loss of or death of the attachment figure, and fear of being alone or sleeping alone. Expression of anxiety through separation protest, physical symptoms (tummy ache), and nightmares, however, may be more adaptive than pathological.

As adults we expect children to cope with certain types of stressful events and adjust fairly quickly to major life changes, often without the presence of parents. Adults often have an expectation that these stressful events are just part of life and disavow the child’s behavioral reaction based on the adult logic that there is no real danger. However, by thinking in this manner we are ignoring some of the most basic human biological and survival mechanisms.


Adults assume that fear and anxiety must result from experiencing “appropriately” painful or dangerous situations; however, one must then beg the question: why do children frequently show fear in seemingly non-painful or non-dangerous situations? In the environment in which humans evolved, separation from attachment figures meant quick death. In fact, attainment of water and then food were subordinate to the need for proximity to an attachment figure, secondary only to oxygen for survival. Hence, it is no wonder that stressful situations including newness, illness, pain, and sudden changes to routine cause children to seek the safety, comfort and protection of their attachment figures. When parents are not available, distress is expressed. (Campbell, 2002).

Humans naturally respond with fear behavior elicited by certain stimuli (noise, sudden changes of stimulation, darkness, strangers and strange events or situations) despite the presence of actual risk or danger. Separation of child from parent can be regarded in a similar manner. Hence, from this perspective the associated symptoms and behaviors of separation-anxiety are evoked from the natural feelings of increased risk of danger and therefore the behavioral response, often a protest or tantrum, is employed to reduce this risk (Bowlby, 1989).

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Often during the experience of a distressing separation a child’s panic system is evoked, resulting in discomfort, active solicitation of help and social support, and autonomic symptoms including feelings of weakness, shortness of breath, and a feeling of having a lump in the throat. These symptoms are similar to that of an adult experiencing panic attack or panic disorder (Panksepp, 1998).

It is through the consistent and willing attunement and response to the child and provision of a “secure base” that promotes the confidence necessary for exploration of the environment. Through interaction with safe, trustworthy, and encouraging adults, children lean how to combine trust in others with trust in themselves. Let us not forget that as humans we run to SOMEONE when frightened as opposed to a den or borough, and we cannot expect our children to unlearn these most basic biological instincts.

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