What Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

As children grow and try to make sense of the world around them, fearing things like the dark and strangers is common. Feeling anxious and insecure is a healthy response for a child to show when the adults the child has become attaced to leave the child's presence. From infancy to about age four, separation anxiety is considered normal child development, and the child's behavior usually consists of being clingy and crying but will usually pass if the child is gently refocused on something else or comforted. This ability to recognize and miss being with mommy and daddy is called “object permanence.” After that developmental period, if a child begins to show signs of extreme distress and anxiety when leaving the parent or guardian, then separation anxiety disorder may be developing.

Separation anxiety disorder is a common disorder and is characterized by excessive anxiety about being separated from parents or any person the child is attaced to or being away from home. It begins before age eighteen. The average age of onset is 7.5 years, butthe disorder has a specifier, “early onset,” that indicates SAD before six years of age. Avoidance manifests in behaviors such as refusing to go to school or not wanting to stay over at a friend's house. Symptoms may go into remission but exacerbate during major life events or transitions, and the disorder can last into adulthood.

Object Permanence

Object permanence is a term from Jean Piaget's theory on child development. In Piaget's sensorimotor stage (birth to two years), babies recognize “mother” but are not aware that “mother” exists once she is out of sight. At about eight months old, the child begins to differentiate between “self” and “mother” and in that stage achieves object permanence, that people and things continue to exist even when they are not present.

Ages for Separation Fears

In the normal course of child development, separation fears manifest at eight months, twelve months, and between eighteen months to three years. Separation anxiety generally shows up at around nine months and peaks between twelve to twenty-four months. Separation anxiety generally decreases between two and three years of age. The degree of difficulty the child has may vary from day to day, with one day being more independent and another being clingy and sad. As a child grows there is more of a drive toward independence, but transition times may cause a start in separation symptoms.


It is estimated that in the United States, separation anxiety disorder (SAD) affects as many as 4.7 percent of children from ages seven to eleven, and 1.3 percent of teenagers from fourteen to sixteen years old. Separation anxiety disorder affects about 2.4 percent of the world population.

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