Separation Anxiety in Teens: A Guide for Parents
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Separation Anxiety in Teens: A Guide for Parents

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Separation anxiety is a mental health condition characterized by excessive worry and distress when a person is separated from a primary caregiver or attachment figure. It’s most commonly seen in young children due to heavily relying on their parent or caregiver to meet their physical and emotional needs. Most kids outgrow this condition. Sometimes, kids may go through periods of wanting to be closer to their parents but grow to become independent. Separation anxiety can affect teens too: Approximately 8% of teens experience separation anxiety. This number may seem small, but it means that many teens are struggling with this condition. The good news is that help is available for teens struggling with the distress this condition can cause in their lives. 

Symptoms of separation anxiety in teens

Symptoms of separation anxiety can manifest in a variety of ways. Symptoms teens may experience include:

  • Excessive worrying — Teens with separation anxiety may worry excessively about being away from their parents or caregivers. This worry can be the fear of something bad happening to their loved ones or themselves when they’re not together.
  • Physical symptoms — Separation anxiety can cause physical symptoms. These symptoms may include headaches, stomachaches, nausea, vomiting or panic attacks when they anticipate being separated. They may also experience muscle tension or aches. This can be in their shoulders, neck or back as a physical symptom of anxiety about being separated. 
  • Difficulty sleeping alone — Teens with separation anxiety may have a hard time sleeping alone without a parent or caregiver with them. They may have a hard time falling or staying asleep and may even insist on sleeping in the same room or bed as their parents. They may experience nightmares about being separated. 
  • Loss of appetite — If a teen is preoccupied with thoughts of being separated from their loved ones, they may have a decreased appetite or change in their eating habits. 
  • Heightened aggression or anger — Some teens may express their distress through aggression or anger. They may react defensively or lash out verbally or physically when they face a situation that can trigger their separation anxiety.
  • School refusal — Teens may be reluctant to go to school or may refuse to go altogether. They may experience distress at the thought of being away from their loved ones for extended periods. They may also struggle academically. 
  • Social withdrawal — Separation anxiety can cause a teen to withdraw socially. They may avoid social activities or interactions that mean they will be away from their parents or caregivers.
  • Difficulty concentrating — Teens with separation anxiety may have a hard time concentrating or focusing on tasks when they are away from their loved ones. This can be because their thoughts are consumed with worries about being separated.
  • Difficulty being alone — Teens with separation anxiety may find it hard to be alone, even for short periods. 
  • Reassurance seeking — Teens with separation anxiety may need frequent reassurance from their parents or caregivers when they aren’t together. This may be frequent calls or texts, demanding reassurance about their safety and well-being, 

It’s important to seek help if you notice these symptoms and behaviors begin to have an effect on your teen’s life or functioning or if the symptoms last for longer than six months. A qualified mental health professional can help your teen learn how to cope in healthy ways when they have to face a separation. 

What can contribute to the development of separation anxiety in teens?

There isn’t a single cause for separation anxiety. However, several factors can contribute to a teen developing this condition:

  • Genetics — If a close family member has an anxiety disorder, your teen may be more susceptible.
  • Stressful life events — A major change like a family move, changing schools, parent deployment, divorce or a breakup can trigger separation anxiety. 
  • Underlying mental health conditions — Anxiety disorders or depression can present as separation anxiety.
  • Loss or trauma — Experiencing the death of a loved one, a natural disaster, a global pandemic or even a chronic illness within the family can have a significant impact on a teen’s sense of security and safety. These events can cause heightened anxiety and make separation from parents or caregivers more difficult. 

Risks of separation anxiety in teens

If separation anxiety is left untreated, separation anxiety can have negative consequences for teens, such as:

  • Academic challenges
  • Social isolation
  • Low self-esteem
  • Increased risk of depression and other anxiety disorders

How to help a teen with separation anxiety

If your teen is struggling with separation anxiety, here are some things you can do to help:

  • Communicate openly and honestly.
  • Validate their feelings.
  • Create a gradual separation plan.
  • Encourage healthy coping mechanisms.
  • Help them develop social skills.
  • Set healthy boundaries.
  • Help them seek professional help.

Lightfully Teen can help your teen learn to cope with the challenges of separation anxiety

Separation anxiety can be a challenging hurdle for teens and their families. At Lightfully Teen, we understand the emotional toll it can take, and we are dedicated to providing compassionate, whole-person-centered care. We believe that separation anxiety, like many mental health challenges, stems from underlying core processes, such as difficulty with emotions, thoughts, relationships and behaviors. Our licensed clinical therapists use a framework of evidence-based modalities to create a personalized treatment plan that can help address these core areas specific to your teen’s needs. 

We see your teen as a whole person, not just a diagnosis or their symptoms. When developing treatment strategies, we consider their unique strengths, challenges and experiences. Together, we can help your teen develop healthy coping mechanisms, build confidence in their independence and navigate the world with greater ease. 

Change is possible. When you’re ready to take the first step, contact us. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of your teen.

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