Separation Anxiety Disorder

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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What is separation anxiety disorder?

To understand separation anxiety disorder, it is important to first recognize the normal difficulty that infants and toddlers have with strangers and in separating from parents and caretakers. Infants show stranger anxiety by crying when someone unfamiliar to them approaches. This normal stage of development is connected with the baby learning to distinguish his or her parents or other familiar caretakers from people they don't know. Stranger anxiety usually starts at about 8 months of age and ends by the time the child is 2 years old, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Separation anxiety as a normal life stage first develops at about 7 months of age, once a baby understands that his or her caregivers do not disappear when out of sight (object permanence). That leads to the baby developing a true attachment to those adults. Normal separation anxiety is most commonly at its strongest at 10-18 months of age and gradually subsides, usually by the time the child is 3 years old. Normal separation anxiety may result in parents having trouble with their babies at bedtime or other times of separation, in that the child becomes anxious, cries, or clings to the caretaker.

In addition to the child's temperament, factors that contribute to how quickly or successfully he or she moves past separation anxiety by preschool age include how well the parent and child reunite, the skills the child and adult have at coping with the separation, and how well the adult responds to the infant's separation issues. For example, children of anxious parents tend to be anxious children.

Separation anxiety disorder is a mental health disorder that usually begins in childhood and is characterized by worrying that is out of proportion to the situation of temporarily leaving home or otherwise separating from loved ones. Approximately 4%-5% of children and adolescents suffer from separation anxiety disorder.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 5/20/2015

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