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Does Your Teen Have Separation Anxiety?

 mother comforting separation anxiety in teen son

When we think of separation anxiety, we usually think of babies and preschoolers, who struggle to be left with a babysitter or to say goodbye to Mom at school. We think of very small children who cry, throw tantrums and cling to parents’ legs, not wanting to leave what is comfortable and familiar.

We don’t often think of teenagers, but teenagers do struggle with separation anxiety.

In fact, according to the Child Mind Institute (CMI), separation anxiety is the third most-likely anxiety disorder for teens to develop. CMI reports that 7.6% of teenagers will meet the criteria for separation anxiety by the time they turn 18.

Separation anxiety is hard to spot in teenagers, and it can be mistaken for learning disabilities, defiance or laziness. But, looking more closely at symptoms and digging more deeply underneath them can unearth the truth of what’s troubling your teen and lead you down the pathway toward a solution.

Causes Of Separation Anxiety In Adolescence

If you think your teenager struggles with separation anxiety, your first instinct might be to find the cause so that you can eliminate it. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to pinpoint one specific cause for separation anxiety disorder. Each teen’s case varies, and multiple causes could contribute to one person’s challenge.

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, separation anxiety can be genetic, but it can also be nurtured by a caregiver’s anxious tendencies. Plus, children who struggle with separation anxiety may grapple with it again as teens.

Some research suggests that major changes in lifestyle or home environment could also trigger separation anxiety in teens. These changes include death, divorce, a big move or a transition to a new school. 

Studies show that changes in caregiving can even alter the functioning of the amygdala, or emotional epicenter of the brain, and influence a person’s struggle with separation anxiety.

As a parent, understand that considering all possible causes, as well as emerging symptoms, will enable you to help your teen cope in the best way possible.

Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety In Older Children

Teenagers usually present separation anxiety in different ways than young children. As they’ve matured, they’ve learned that throwing tantrums and hanging onto their parents’ limbs isn’t socially acceptable. They can still feel the same emotional intensity, but they’ve learned to suppress it deep inside.

Adolescents with separation anxiety might grow more withdrawn or resist attending activities or social gatherings outside their home. In some cases, they might develop school refusal, a condition in which extreme fears or worries about attending school incite physical pains, panic, and a strong desire to avoid school.

Common symptoms of separation anxiety in teens include:

  • Fears and worries about leaving home for any amount of time
  • Resistance to independent opportunities, like driving a car or walking to school alone
  • Difficulty sleeping without a caregiver present
  • Refusal to participate in extracurricular activities
  • Aversion to school or school refusal
  • Panic attacks
  • Nightmares related to separation from caregivers and siblings
  • Aches and pains

Symptoms that persist for more than four weeks, and which interfere with your teen’s daily life, might indicate a struggle with separation anxiety and should be evaluated by a mental health professional.

Impact On Relationships & School Performance

If symptoms of separation anxiety are left untreated, teens’ interpersonal relationships and academic development can suffer.

Separation anxiety makes teens feel compelled to remain at home or to attach themselves to their caregiver. Although they might feel safe at home with caregivers, they won’t be able to grow and develop through friendships or age-appropriate romantic relationships.

Without proper treatment, separation anxiety can interfere with teens’ ability to advance in school, especially if they develop school refusal. Teens with school refusal miss lessons, quizzes, and tests, causing major damage to their academic progress. Plus, the longer they stay immersed in the familiarity of home, the more difficult it will be to re-enter the school environment.

Some teens with separation anxiety will attend school, but it will be quite difficult for them to engage in learning. As licensed clinical social worker Katie Hurley writes, “A worried brain is a distracted brain.” If a teen is anxious about being separated from his or her caregiver while in school, it will be very difficult to concentrate on lessons, projects or exams, and their grades can suffer.

Helping With Separation Anxiety Disorder In Teenage Years

If you suspect that your teen has separation anxiety, connecting him or her to the right counselor or therapist is an essential first step. Professional mental health support can help you get an accurate diagnosis and define the best possible plan to help you and your teen manage symptoms and move ahead with confidence.

And, you can implement strategies at home, which can support your teen even more. Learn More