Kid Fears in Adults: Separation Anxiety

The term “separation anxiety” usually conjures the image of a tearful toddler, or worse, a whimpering dog, but millions of grown-ups live with separation anxiety, too. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen begins a two-part series on kid fears in adults. First up, one of the most common adult fears no one ever talks about: separation anxiety.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #157

From ill-advised Hollywood marriages to good ol’ oil and water, separation is an inevitable part of life.

So it is with separation anxiety. Virtually every toddler goes through a totally normal developmental stage where being away from a primary caregiver is met with tears and clinging that falls somewhere between “baby koala” and “laundry with no dryer sheet.” And it makes total sense—of course a child would get upset about being away from the person who takes care of them. But all the fuss usually subsides by about age 2.

Now, “usually” doesn’t mean “always.” Lots of school-age kids and teens—studies estimate around 1 in 20—have separation anxiety, which can lead to very real problems, like not wanting to go to school and having trouble making friends.

But guess what? Separation anxiety is just as common, if not more common, in adults than in kids. One study estimates that a full 6.6% of adults will have separation anxiety at some point in their life, whether it spills over from childhood or starts fresh as an adult reaction to bereavement, panic attacks, or something else. What does this mean? It means if you suspect this might mean you, you’re far from alone.

What are the signs of adult separation anxiety? To illustrate, meet Megan, a client I worked with a few years ago (clearly not her real name—I’d like to keep my license). Megan was a smart, thirty-something grantwriter who’d been married for almost ten years. Early in her marriage, she would travel and spend time alone without a thought, but after a few years she found it harder and harder to be without her husband. This is the hallmark—getting distressed and worried when you have to be away from your spouse, a parent, or whomever it is you’re attached to.

At first she thought she was just overprotective or a worrywart. But separation anxiety is a very specific kind of distress. You might worry about your loved one dying or getting injured, being in an accident, or getting sick. Conversely, you might worry you’ll need their help and not be able to get it—you’ll have an emergency, get hurt, or need them in some vague but urgent way.

In addition to worries about disaster, there are other telltale signs. For instance, going to sleep is particularly hard if your partner isn’t there, and to add insult to injury, you often have insomnia or separation-themed nightmares. To top it off, you probably have physical symptoms before you have to be apart, like headaches or GI problems.

For Megan, nothing traumatic happened to start her worry that something bad might occur to her husband or to her—no near-death experience, no heartstopping I-thought-I’d-lost-you-forever moment. The closest she could come to pinpointing a starting line was an out-of-the-blue panic attack she had before boarding an airplane for a business trip a few years before. She didn’t think much of it at the time, but over the years, her anxiety got to the point where she couldn’t travel for work or get away for a weekend with friends. Worse, when her husband had to travel, Megan would have GI problems for days, and then would have to use her vacation time to go stay with her rightfully baffled parents. Her situation wasn’t working for anyone, especially Megan.

But for Megan, and for the millions of adults with separation anxiety, the worst part wasn’t even the symptoms, it was the embarrassment. It’s humiliating to disclose that you’re a grown-up who can’t be away from your partner or parents. And for the 43% of adults whose fears developed after age 18, it’s hard to reconcile your logical brain, which makes you feel ridiculous, and your fear, which is very real and very convincing.

What to do about separation anxiety? Luckily, there are lots of things to try. Start with these 5 tips:

Tip #1: Get really specific.

The overarching theme of separation anxiety is uncertainty. This is the constant “what if”-ing that never seems to end. What if something bad happens? What if I need help and no one’s around? What if there’s a problem and she needs me?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: anxiety is vague. When your brain worries that “something bad” might happen, ask it to be more specific. What specifically are you worried about? Sometimes, there’s nothing specific, which can be a surprising relief. Other times, there is a more specific fear, and once you whittle vague, non-specific “what ifs” down to concrete “what ifs,” you can move on to Tip #2, which is...

Tip #2: Answer the question.  

Your anxiety intends your “what if” questions to be rhetorical, but instead, try answering them.

“What if there’s a hurricane, his plane can’t take off, and he’s stuck?” Well, then he’d seek shelter in the airport, follow any emergency procedures, and probably have a few margaritas while he bonds with fellow stranded passengers. “What if I get sick while my partner’s away?” Well, you’d call your doctor, or, worst-case scenario, an ambulance.

Answering the question does one of two things. If your worries are about harm befalling your partner, it moves your imaginary worst-case scenario onward to something safer and less anxiety-provoking. If your worries are about harm befalling you, answering the question gives you a plan of action.

This is important because anxiety tries its hardest to convince you you’re not capable. By answering the question and coming up with a plan, you fight back by showing anxiety you can handle whatever it throws at you.


Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.