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Separation Anxiety in Children

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How Common Is Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Separation anxiety affects approximately 4%-5% of children in the U. S. ages 7 to 11 years. It is less common in teenagers, affecting about 1.3% of American teens. It affects boys and girls equally.

How Is Separation Anxiety Disorder Diagnosed?

As with adults, mental illness in children is diagnosed based on signs and symptoms. If symptoms are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical exam. Although there are no laboratory tests to specifically diagnose separation anxiety disorder, the doctor may use various tests -- such as blood tests and other laboratory measures -- to rule out physical illness or medication side effects as the cause of the symptoms.

If no physical illness is found, the child may be referred to a child and adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist, mental health professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illness in children and teens. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a child for a mental illness. The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on reports of the child's symptoms and his or her observation of the child's attitude and behavior.

What Is the Treatment for Separation Anxiety Disorder?

Most mild cases of separation anxiety disorder do not need medical treatment. In more severe cases, or when the child refuses to go to school, treatment may be needed. The goals of treatment include reducing anxiety in the child, developing a sense of security in the child and the caregivers, and educating the child and family/caregivers about the need for natural separations. Treatment options that may be used include:

  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (''talking'' therapy) is the main treatment approach for separation anxiety disorder. The focus of therapy is to help the child tolerate being separated from the caregiver without the separation causing distress or interfering with function. A type of therapy called cognitive-behavioral therapy works to reshape the child's thinking (cognition) so that the child's behavior becomes more appropriate. Family therapy also may help teach the family about the disorder and help family members better support the child during periods of anxiety.
  • Medication:Antidepressant or other anti-anxiety medications may be used to treat severe cases of separation anxiety disorder.
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