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Separation Anxiety in Teens: A Guide for Parents 

If you’re unfamiliar with separation anxiety in teens, and your teenager sometimes has a hard time being away from you, you may be wondering what’s going on, why it’s happening, and how to address it. Keep reading for helpful information, including symptoms your teenager may experience and treatment for this mental health challenge. 

What Is Separation Anxiety in Teens? 

Separation anxiety causes panic or distress when a child separates from a parent or an attachment figure. According to Patricia Hudson-Henry, Psy.D., assistant clinical director at the Embark Behavioral Health outpatient treatment clinic in Cabin John, Maryland, it’s more common in younger children than in teenagers.  

It most often occurs in children between 18 months and 3 years old. Usually, as a child gets older, this distress will eventually not be an issue. However, it can continue during early childhood and adolescence and even persist through the late teen years.  

According to Hudson-Henry, if separation anxiety symptoms are present in a teen for at least four weeks and are so severe they negatively impact daily life, that teenager would meet the criteria for separation anxiety disorder.  

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Teens 

If you’re concerned about your teenager and are wondering if they have an issue that needs to be addressed, here are some signs of separation anxiety in teens:  

  • Excessive distress when they leave home or separate from a parent or attachment figure. 
  • Overwhelming fear that something terrible will happen, causing permanent loss of a family member or attachment figure.  
  • Worry over something terrible happening to them, such as getting kidnapped, falling ill, or getting lost. 
  • Fear of being alone or refusing to sleep away from home. 
  • Complaints of physical symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, or vomiting, which occur or are anticipated when separation from a parent or significant caregiver happens. 

Although these are the most common signs that your teenager may be experiencing separation anxiety, and SAD if the symptoms persist too long or worsen, Hudson-Henry said there could be more severe signs attributed to the disorder. 

“Some rare symptoms of SAD include anger and aggression toward the individual who requires separation,” she said. “Additionally, perceptual experiences include ‘seeing’ individuals peering into their rooms, frightening creatures reaching for them, and feeling eyes staring at them.” 

What Causes Separation Anxiety in Teens 

When it comes to what causes separation anxiety in teens, typically, the issue develops as result of the child’s environment at a young age. However, genetics can play a role.  

Some triggers may include times of intense stress, such as the death of a loved one or extended separation from a caregiver that’s out of the child’s control. Other triggers can include natural disasters or global pandemics. 

In a combined impact, these environmental and biological elements can significantly affect a child’s mental health and overall development, with lasting effects into adulthood.  

4 types of attachment styles and SAD 

Based on a child’s environmental and biological factors, researchers found that children can develop one of four distinct attachment styles with separation anxiety disorder: secure attachment, avoidant-insecure attachment, anxious-insecure attachment, and disorganized-insecure attachment. The three insecure styles relate to what causes SAD in teens. 

Secure attachment 

A child who develops a secure attachment style has a parent or caregiver who is: 

  • Responsive. 
  • Dependable. 
  • Consistent. 
  • Sensitive to needs. 
  • Shows positive emotion. 

Children who experience this type of attachment are typically more confident, resilient, and trusting of their attachment figure. These characteristics are more likely to continue into adulthood and will help them nurture healthy relationships.  

Avoidant-insecure attachment 

A child who develops an avoidant-insecure attachment style may have a parent who is: 

  • Unresponsive. 
  • Insensitive to needs or wants. 
  • Disconnected emotionally. 

Children who experience this style may feel unworthy, unloved, and unaccepted. Teens may develop a poor self-image and become ambivalent. These characteristics can continue to negatively impact their lives and relationships with others in adulthood. 

Anxious-insecure attachment 

In the anxious-insecure attachment style, the child is usually clingy and difficult to calm down when they become distressed or upset. This behavior stems from parenting that’s:  

  • Inconsistent. 
  • Unpredictable. 
  • Insensitive. 
  • Emotionally negative. 

Children with this attachment style may continue the clingy, anxious behavior well into adulthood, affecting future relationships, self-image, and overall emotional well-being.  

Disorganized-insecure attachment 

Children develop this style of attachment for many reasons. They may have had traumatic experiences such as neglect or abuse or other adverse situations outside their control at a young age.  

They tend to lack the coping skills necessary to handle routine or everyday situations and encounters. Confidence levels are low, and feelings of being undervalued and unloved are prevalent. 

Overall, regarding how insecure attachment types relate to what causes separation anxiety in teens, Hudson-Henry explained, “It becomes increasingly difficult for them to rationalize experiences. They become more reactive to seemingly nonthreatening experiences like separation from an attachment figure. Thus, they have a higher risk of developing social and emotional behavior problems like separation anxiety disorder as teenagers.” 

How To Treat Separation Anxiety and SAD in Teenagers

Parent and teen talk about separation anxiety disorder and ideas for treatment.
Parent and teen talk about separation anxiety disorder and ideas for treatment.

There are multiple ways to help treat separation anxiety in teenagers, and some of them begin at home. Here are just a few tips on how to help your child tackle this mental health challenge.  

  • Sit down with your teen to discuss what triggers their separation anxiety, and create a game plan for how to handle new situations.  
  • Practice positive reframing by reminding your child of the good things they may experience while being away from you.  
  • Boost your teen’s confidence and encourage their efforts by providing extra support and guidance. For example, Hudson-Henry said, you can boost confidence by listening nonjudgmentally, supporting your child’s dreams, and trying to connect with them more than correcting their mistakes. Additionally, she recommended you:  
    • Celebrate their little wins and their big victories.  
    • Create opportunities for them to explore their interests and build competencies.  
    • Model confidence for your teen. 

Your teenager may also benefit from mental health treatment, as different types of therapy can be beneficial for teens with separation anxiety.  

Often, therapists and psychologists recommend a combination of behavioral therapy and psychiatric intervention. However, therapy can work by itself too.  

The two most common treatments for separation anxiety as well as SAD are: 

The most common approach is CBT, which is used to change negative thinking patterns. Hudson-Henry noted that mental health professionals consider it the therapeutic gold standard, as it’s a highly effective treatment.  

DBT, a type of CBT, is another excellent option. It helps teens regulate emotions and distress. With DBT, your teen would learn skills through four behavioral skill modules: 

  1. Distress tolerance: Tolerating pain in difficult circumstances. 
  1. Mindfulness: Being fully aware and present at the moment. 
  1. Emotion regulation: Changing emotions and decreasing vulnerability to painful emotions that need to change. 
  1. Interpersonal effectiveness: Asking for what’s wanted and practicing saying “No” while maintaining self-respect and relationship with others.  

Family therapy can be invaluable when it comes to how to treat separation anxiety and SAD in teenagers. It can serve as a significant stepping stone to the path of healing. If parents check themselves and ensure they’re providing all the support they can, the chances of success improve immensely.  

Final Advice for Parents 

Hudson-Henry offered straightforward advice regarding how to help your teen if they have separation anxiety or SAD.  

  • Be present and available as much as possible. 
  • Learn to say sorry when you’ve made a mistake. 
  • Listen to what your teen has to say, and do so nonjudgmentally. 
  • Validate your child, and strive to connect with them rather than correct them. 

“Finally, provide consistent deposits of your love through commitment, acceptance, security, and attunement into your teenager’s life,” Hudson-Henry said, referring to the CASA Developmental Framework, Embark’s proprietary approach to creating therapeutic relationships. As she explained: 

  • A teen experiences commitment when parents are present and engaged with them. “This extends beyond the physical and academic to being emotionally present and involved in all aspects of their lives,” Hudson-Henry said. 
  • Acceptance is experienced when a parent’s words and actions consistently demonstrate that the teen is valuable. The teen’s thoughts, feelings and actions are validated. “This does not mean that you agree with them but demonstrate an understanding of how an experience may be important to your teen,” Hudson-Henry said. 
  • Safety is felt when commitment and acceptance are a consistent part of the teen’s experience with the caregiver. “The caregiver becomes a reliable source of these virtues for the teen, and hence, they feel safe sharing,” Hudson-Henry said. 
  • The word attunement means being aware of and receptive to another person. This level of intimacy in any relationship is only possible when there is commitment, acceptance, and safety. “Teenagers whose parents have successfully demonstrated the ‘C-A-S’ experience a sense of freedom to be themselves,” Hudson-Henry said. “They finally feel seen and loved without reservation because parents are now fully able to co-regulate with their teens. Teens in return learn how to regulate their emotions.”  

By following these steps and seeking help if it’s needed, you can help address separation anxiety in your teen so your child can feel less anxious when they’re away from you. 

Embark is the most trusted name in teen and young adult mental health treatment. We’re driven to find the help your family needs. If you’re looking for support, contact us today! 

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Embark Behavioral Health

Embark Behavioral Health is a leading network of outpatient centers and residential programs offering premier mental health treatment for preteens, teens, and young adults. Dedicated to its mission of reversing the trends of teen and young adult anxiety, depression, and suicide by 2028, Embark offers a robust continuum of care with different levels of service and programming; has a deep legacy of over 25 years serving youths; works with families to adjust treatment in real time to improve results; treats the entire family using an evidence-based approach; and offers the highest levels of quality care and safety standards. For more information about Embark or its treatment programs, including virtual counseling, intensive outpatient programs (IOPs), therapeutic day treatment programs, also known as partial hospitalization programs (PHPs), short-term residential treatment, wilderness therapy, and long-term residential treatment, visit www.embarkbh.com.