Like many childhood concerns, separation anxiety is normal at certain developmental stages. For example, when a child between the ages of eight and 14 months is separated from her mother or other primary caretaker, she may experience distress. This is normal. However, separation anxiety that occurs at later ages is considered a disorder because it is outside of normal developmental expectations, and because of the intensity of the child's emotional response. Separation anxiety disorder occurs most frequently from the ages of five to seven and from 11 to 14.
Environmental stimuli and internal cues from the child himself interact in the presentation of separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety disorder is defined by the primary expression of excessive anxiety that occurs upon the actual or anticipated separation of the child from adult caregivers—most often the parents. Significant problems in daily functioning for the child and parents can result from the disorder. Common fears observed in the presentation of separation anxiety include concerns about the parents' health or well-being (less frequently the child's own health), general catastrophes, natural disasters, or the child becoming lost/separated from the parents. Disrupted sleep, difficulty falling asleep alone, fear of monsters, or nightmares are also commonly experienced by children with separation anxiety disorder.
Family routines, parents' work schedules, and siblings' activities may all be negatively affected by the excessive anxiety and demands of the child with separation anxiety disorder. Family life is often disrupted by efforts to soothe the child. Parents can become stressed themselves as they try to maintain their daily routines and obligations, while attempting to manage their child's anxiety. The family's adjustment is often made more difficult due to the sudden appearance of symptoms.
Deanna Pledge Ph.D., The Gale Group Inc., Gale, Detroit,