Separation anxiety isn’t only seen in children. It can also be seen in adults. Adults with separation anxiety have extreme fear that bad things will happen to important people in their lives, such as family members.
Separation anxiety in adults vs. children
Separation anxiety is a regular part of development for children between the age of six months to three years. When symptoms continue into late childhood, your child may be diagnosed as having child separation anxiety disorder.
If separation anxiety continues into adulthood, you’ll be diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder. Symptoms of anxiety disorder in children and adults are similar. For children, separation anxiety is often associated with extreme fear or anxiety about being away from parents or caregivers. That can make a child less willing to participate in events or social experiences, like spending the night at a friend’s house or going to summer sleepaway camp. For adults, the anxiety is around being away from children or spouses. Instead of school, work function or other responsibilities can become impaired.
It’s normal to be concerned about the well-being of loved ones. People with adult separation anxiety disorder experience high levels of anxiety, and sometimes even panic attacks, when loved ones are out of reach.
People with this disorder may be socially withdrawn, or show extreme sadness or difficulty concentrating when away from loved ones. In parents, the disorder can lead to strict, over-involved parenting. In relationships, you may be more likely to be an overbearing partner.
Other common symptoms include:
- unfounded fears that loved ones, or yourself, will be abducted or fatally injured
- extreme and persistent hesitancy or refusal to leave the proximity of loved ones
- difficulty sleeping away from a loved one for fear that something will happen to them
- depression or anxiety attacks related to any of the above topics
You may also have physical aches and pains, headaches, and diarrhea associated with periods of anxiety.
To be diagnosed with adult separation anxiety disorder, symptoms must impair functioning and continue for at least six months.
Separation anxiety often develops after a loss of a loved one, or following a significant event such as moving to college. You may be more likely to develop adult separation anxiety disorder if you were diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder as a child. Adults who grew up with overbearing parents may also be at an increased risk.
Adult separation anxiety disorder is often diagnosed in people who’ve also been diagnosed with any of the following conditions:
- generalized anxiety disorder
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- panic disorder
- social anxiety disorder
- personality disorders
To diagnose this condition, your doctor will conduct a comprehensive examination and use the criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-V). According to the DSM-V, one of the first signs is excessive fear or anxiety about being separated from people you’re close to. The anxiety and fear has to be developmentally inappropriate. Additionally:
- symptoms in adults must be present for a minimum of six months
- symptoms are so severe that they affect social functioning and responsibilities
- symptoms cannot be better explained by a different disorder
Your medical provider will ask you many questions to determine if you fit the criteria for this diagnosis. You may need several sessions with a therapist before receiving a diagnosis.
Your health provider may also talk to close family members or friends to help them better understand how your symptoms affect your daily life. They won’t disclose anything you’ve shared, and they’ll only talk with them if they’ve received your consent.
Treatment for adult separation anxiety disorder is similar to treatments used to treat other anxiety disorders. Your medical provider may recommend a variety of treatments, or you may have to try several treatments before finding one that works for you. Possible treatments include:
- cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
- group therapy
- family therapy
- dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
- medications, such as antidepressants, buspirone (BuSpar),or benzodiazepines