Separation anxiety disorder
If a person suspects that he or she or a loved one is suffering from separation anxiety disorder, it is important to remember that the condition is treatable and seek the help of a professional as soon as possible.


What is separation anxiety disorder?

Separation anxiety disorder is a deep-rooted fear of being separated from important bonding figures / loved ones, e.g. children, a spouse or partner, parents, a sibling or a friend. The fear significantly limits a person's functioning and quality of life.

Please note that an official diagnosis may only be made by a qualified person.


What are the symptoms of separation anxiety?

The following symptoms are indicative, based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM – 5), accepted worldwide as the most authoritative source:

  1. Fear or anxiety that is not appropriate for the individual's level of development and is focused on the separation of the person / persons to whom the person is attached. This fear or anxiety presented by at least three of the following symptoms:
    1. repetitive and excessive distress when the person experiences or expects separation from home or an important loved one;
    2. persistent and excessive concern that the person will lose this important loved one or that possible “damage” will be done to the loved one, e.g. by sickness, injury, tragedy, or death;
    3. persistent and excessive concern that something bad is going to happen that will cause separation from the important loved one (eg to get lost, be kidnapped, be in an accident or contract an incurable disease);
    4. causing the fear of separation continuous reluctance or refusal to go out, to be away from home, to school, to work or elsewhere;
    5. persistent and excessive fear or unwillingness to be alone or without an important loved one, at home or under other circumstances;
    6. continuous unwillingness or refusal to sleep away from home OR to sleep without the important loved one being near;
    7. repeated nightmares about separation; and / or
    8. repeated complaints of physical symptoms, e.g. headaches, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting when separation from an important loved one is experienced or expected.
  2. How long should the symptoms be present?
    1. With kids and teens at least four weeks; In
    2. In adults at least six months.
  3. This disorder causes noticeable discomfort and upset or limits the person's functioning at school, work, in their social life and / or in other areas.
  4. This disorder is not better explained by another psychological condition, e.g. generalized anxiety disorder, no.

Adults with separation anxiety can experience a great deal of discomfort when they have to travel and / or stay independently.

In some cases come panic attacks along with the fear of separation.


Treatment of separation anxiety disorder

Did you know?
Although separation anxiety is a serious disorder that negatively impacts a person's quality of life, it is important to remember that treatment is available for this.
If there is no support group in your area, it may be an opportunity for you to start your own group!
  1. Why is it necessary to treat separation anxiety disorder?
    Separation anxiety disorder limits a person's functioning and quality of life and can lead to serious problems in relationships, families and families. Separation anxiety disorder does not usually go away without treatment. It is important to get treatment for this as soon as possible.
  2. How is separation anxiety disorder treated?
    It may take some experimentation before the person finds the treatment that is effective for him / her. Not all options are always available to everyone in South Africa, but here are some recommendations:
    1. Diagnosis
      Effective treatment requires a correct diagnosis. A psychiatrist or registered psychologist can help identify the symptoms and make an accurate diagnosis.
    2. Psychotherapy
      For most people with a moderate to severe degree of separation anxiety disorder, psychotherapy is a useful and effective tool. Different psychologists use different approaches to this. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (cognitive behavioral therapy) and dialectical behavior therapy (dialectical behavior therapy) are around approaches that are effectively used in the treatment of separation anxiety disorder. Psychotherapy can be offered in a one-on-one session, but there are also psychologists who offer therapy to couples / relationships, families or groups.
    3. Support groups
      Support groups are always very valuable, as they provide an opportunity to learn from others who share similar experiences and challenges. Group members also provide support to each other and give the person the feeling that there are other people who understand what he / she is going through. Unfortunately, there is not always an active group in one's environment. Online searches sometimes yield good results. More information can be found on the SADAG website
    4. Medication
      Often medication is needed, and for that the psychologist can refer the person to a psychiatrist, who can then do a full assessment and recommend and prescribe appropriate medication (if necessary).


What can you do to manage your symptoms yourself?

  1. Collect information
    Knowing more about one's symptoms and how separation anxiety disorder works can go a long way in empowering and controlling symptoms.
  2. Ask for help
    Acknowledging that one has a problem is an important first step, which can also bring considerable relief. The next step is to share with a loved one what one is going through, but with separation anxiety disorder, professional help is usually needed to make a noticeable difference.
  3. Stick to the treatment plan
    It is very common that one does not suddenly experience a change in symptoms once treatment begins. A person should feel comfortable with his / her therapist and build a relationship of trust. It usually takes time to lay the foundation for this. If medication is prescribed, it can also take time to find the right type of medication and dose, as people respond differently to medication. However, it is very important to maintain open and honest communication with one's psychologist and doctor. Also, be patient with yourself and stick to the treatment plan as much as possible.


How can I support someone with separation anxiety disorder?

It can be very demanding to be in a relationship with someone who has separation anxiety disorder. There is a constant demand for your attention and time, which can make you feel trapped. Here are some guidelines:

Adults with separation anxiety disorder can be experienced as demanding, dependent and overprotective. Their behavior and demands can lead to frustration and struggles within the family / family.
  1. Get to know and understand the symptoms
    Knowledge is power. The more one learns what the disorder looks like and how it works, the more understanding one can show for someone's struggle.
  2. Encourage professional help
    As already mentioned, separation anxiety disorder usually requires professional help. Therefore, it can be very helpful to encourage someone to consult a professional, even if one has to accompany the person after the first session.
  3. Social support
    It is important that everyone in the relationship has their own support network of people they know and trust. It promotes healthy independence and lightens the burden on the person living with the diagnosed person.
Some physical symptoms are more common in children, while others (physical symptoms) are more common in adults and teens.
Children with separation anxiety disorder will more often complain of nausea, stomach pain, headache and vomiting.
Adults and teens are more likely to experience palpitations, dizziness and fainting / tiredness.
Did you know?
Although separation anxiety is most common in children, it can also be diagnosed in teens and adults.


If you or a loved one is struggling with mental health issues, we suggest the following options:
  1. call your GP (if available);
  2. go to your nearest hospital emergency room;
  3. call one of the following emergency numbers: SADAG (the South African Depression and Anxiety Group) 24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789 or suicide crisis line: 0800 567 567; or
  4. contact Wie is ek?