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Demystifying the DSM:  Dealing with Separation Anxiety Disorder in Adults and Children

Little boy embraces his mother. Shyness, fears, anxiety. Hyper-attachment to mother.

Cristi Bundukamara, Ed. D, PMHNP (aka, Dr. B.), founder and creator of the Mentally STRONG Method, continues her series on demystifying the DSM by explaining what causes separation anxiety, how it differs in children and adults, and how to treat it. Separation Anxiety is just one of the many anxiety disorders with a cluster of symptoms.

Separation Anxiety Causes & Criteria

Whether an incident that causes trauma and resulting anxiety or generalized anxiety disorder – the causes of separation anxiety are similar in adults and children. The scope of interference or the causal incident may differ, but the source is inherently the same. Children and adults may not want to be alone after a traumatic event, which is perfectly normal. If it persists, however, it may interfere with everyday life.

Recurrent and excessive distress must be present to meet the criteria for separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety disorder is a persistent state that cannot be overcome with time or by adapting to new circumstances. If it only takes patience and time to overcome separation anxiety, it is normal and may not need professional interventions.

Separation Anxiety in Babies and Children

Separation anxiety in babies and children can be expected, but if this is persistent and impedes normal function or daily life, the child may need intervention and treatment. Normal separation anxiety may occur on the first day of school and may be recurrent, where any first day at a new school causes the child to exhibit separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is considered normal and may require patience. Typically anxiety that subsides after four weeks is considered normal. Suppose the anxiety is significant and amplified when considering their peers’ reactions, lasting longer than a month. In that case, it may indicate an unresolved trauma that the child has experienced triggering this anxiety. For instance, a 10-year-old that has not experienced separation anxiety before developing this reaction might mean something significant has happened to them.

Separation Anxiety in Adults

Like children, separation anxiety can happen after a traumatic event in an adult’s life. It is considered an anxiety disorder if it interferes with normal day-to-day functioning. While anxiety can be a normal part of life, this impediment to normal activities lasting more than six months indicates

How to Treat Separation Anxiety

When investigating separation anxiety and determining a cause, it is essential to remember how impressionable children are and avoid using leading questions, such as “did so-and-so hurt you?”  Instead, methods such as play therapy allow a child to process and communicate events that have happened to them, naturally revealing possible issues or past events.

In adults, cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT techniques can help people move past their traumas, called post-traumatic growth. Therapy and post-traumatic growth apply to any stressor triggering separation anxiety – not just major events. As with everything else we experience, it is essential to take what we can from experience and grow from it, making us Mentally STRONGer.

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