Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is the fear, dread and distress of separation from attachment figures, such as the mother, father or other significant others, or from home.

The child suffering from separation anxiety disorder is unable to tolerate separation from these figures and experiences the actual or imminent condition of separation with great distress . He will have a tendency to avoid situations outside the home or away from his parents in order not to separate from them.

There are frequent nightmares or fantasies that bring about this separation through unforeseen and traumatic events such as serious illness, kidnapping or car accidents … However, the mere presence of these criteria is not sufficient to make a diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder, but they can be a alarm bell if all present and of an important entity. 

It is not always a nuisance

When I was little, thanks to some urban legends that I had heard and had impressed me, I had developed the fear of being kidnapped. For a long time I went back to questioning myself about that childhood fear to understand what could be behind it. Today, I believe separation anxiety is a good answer.

After all, the fear behind the kidnapping was to be taken away from my family, not to be able to see them again. I find that more or less everyone’s childhood has fears of this kind. So let’s try to understand when separation anxiety can be defined as a disorder.

Symptoms of separation anxiety

According to the DSM-V, separation anxiety can be defined as a disorder when at least three of the following criteria are met in the case of children and adolescents under the age of eighteen for at least four weeks and in the case of adults for at least six months:

  • Excessive suffering when imminent separation is communicated or when separation occurs;
  • Extreme apprehension about the health or death of loved ones, particularly when separated from them;
  • Particularly concerned about unforeseen events that might happen to them and that would keep them away from attachment figures;
  • They are reluctant or refuse to go out on their own due to separation anxieties;
  • They have excessive fear or reluctance to find themselves alone at home or in other contexts without their favorite attachment figures;
  • They show reluctance to sleep without attachment figures or away from home . Children with this disorder at night try to make their way to the bed of their parents or significant others. They may be reluctant to go to summer camp or sleep at a friend’s house. Adults, on the other hand, may have problems sleeping outside the home;
  • Dreams that focus on separation anxiety may recur ;
  • Physical symptoms can occur in both children and adults. In the former, the most common are nausea, stomach ache, headache when imminent separation is communicated or when this occurs. Cardiovascular symptoms such as palpitations, dizziness and fainting are more common in adults or adolescents 

In the case of adults, the temporal criterion should in any case be considered not in a rigid way but rather as a guide. It is not essential that the duration is completely satisfied. It is more indicative of the possible presence of the disorder to verify how much separation anxiety creates difficulties at an occupational, social level and in all the main areas of life functioning.  

Considerations about separation anxiety

The central element, for both children and adults, in this disorder is the inability to tolerate the loss . Separation is basically a loss. So it is not uncommon to find in the history of those who suffer from this disorder an early and unprocessed loss.

It is clear that the fear of the loss of a child is very different from that of an adult, both for the greater traumatic impact it can have on the child, and for the lack of refined tools to cope with the great events of life. However, the weight that an important loss can have in the life of an adult should not be underestimated, in fact the individual ability to know how to react to a traumatic event is not secondary.

A famous example of an original solution

A few years ago I saw a very interesting documentary about the artist Banksy. The 2010 feature film is called “Exit through the gift shop” and also received an Oscar nomination.

The story behind it is very complex and unclear, as always when Banksy is behind it, you are not sure if the documentary is in fact true or false. The element that interests me to report here is the story of the man who takes care of filming: Thierry Guetta.

Introduced as a lover of video footage, he follows street artists everywhere to record everything they do. But absolutely everything. The origin of this passion of his is also reported: when he was a child his mother had fallen ill and, given his tender age, the family had seen fit to keep him in the dark and send him to relatives to avoid seeing him with his eyes the mother’s disease. Even when she dies he will not be there and will only come to know later.

Growing up, he developed this passion for video, thanks also to the commercial availability of the first portable video cameras. He will never stop, he will resume every important moment of his family and beyond and through this behavior he will be able to exorcise the fear of being able to lose something important again. It is interesting how this man developed his own solution to the anguish of loss. 

The construction in psychotherapy

After all, each of us is called to find our own solution and will develop one, harmful or beneficial. A psychotherapy course makes a difference in this. It helps those who are unable, alone, to first face the pain of a separation and, through its elaboration, to regain the ability to follow their own path.

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