Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children and Adolescents

ICD-10 code: F93.0

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) is part of a cluster of diagnoses called the anxiety disorders.  Anxiety disorders are a group of psychiatric conditions that include:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Social anxiety disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Agoraphobia
  • Specific phobia
  • Separation anxiety disorder
  • Selective mutism

These disorders are characterized primarily by the experience of excessive fear and anxiety.  Children with generalized anxiety disorder spend a lot of time worrying about a lot of different things.  Children with social anxiety disorder feel very anxious around other people, including their peers, because they are afraid of embarrassing themselves or being disliked.  Children with panic disorder have sudden rushes of intense fear or discomfort called panic attacks.  They often worry about having another panic attack and might avoid certain situations that might trigger a panic attack.  Children with agoraphobia are afraid of going into certain situations because they are afraid it might be difficult to escape or because they might experience panic-like symptoms or embarrassing symptoms.  Commonly avoided situations are using public transportation, being in open spaces like parking lots, being in enclosed places like movie theaters, or being in a crowd.  Children with a specific phobia are very afraid of one or more objects or situations, such as flying, heights, animals, or seeing blood.  Children with separation anxiety disorder are afraid of being away from a certain person or people, often a parent, often because they are afraid that something bad might happen to them or the other person if they are separated. Children with selective mutism do not speak in situations where it would be socially appropriate for them to speak, such as at school.

The anxiety disorders are characterized by excessive fear and anxiety, along with behavioral disturbances, like avoiding certain places, people, or situations.  The anxiety disorders differ from each other in the target or focus of the fear.  In some anxiety disorders, like specific phobia, the child is only excessively fearful of narrow range of objects or situations.  In other anxiety disorders, like GAD, the child may feel anxious a great deal of the time or about a lot of different things.

What is separation anxiety disorder?

SAD is a psychiatric disorder that affects approximately 4% of children and 1 - 2% of adolescents.  SAD is characterized by significant, developmentally inappropriate fear and anxiety about being separated from significant attachment figures (often one or both parents).

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Understanding Separation Anxiety Disorder

SAD severity can range from relatively mild to severely impairing.  In severe cases, SAD can lead to inability to attend or perform well at school or in sports, or to engage in normative developmental activities such as sleepovers or summer camp.

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How is separatioin anxiety disorder treated?

SAD is treatable.  Currently there are no published guidelines specifically for pediatric SAD.  However, published guidelines for pediatric anxiety, broadly defined, are provided by the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology.  The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry offers historical practice parameters (last updated in 2007); new parameters are being developed.

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