Separation Anxiety in Teenagers: 8 Clear Steps for Parents

Reviewed by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

 

Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person Centred Counsellor and The Ridge Practice and Everlief Child Psychology
Author: Hayley Vaughan Smith, Person-Centred Counsellor

It’s quite likely that your teenager has experienced some worry and anxiety.  It’s a normal part of child development and teenagers can experience many different kinds, depending on the situation. But what is separation anxiety in teenagers?

How can you help your teen understand their separation anxiety and cope with the effects and consequences it may have?

This article explains what separation anxiety in teenagers is and outlines 8 clear steps for parents on how to help your teen.

Where Does Separation Anxiety in Teenagers Come From?

Separation anxiety in teenagers can be triggered by environmental factors that result in stressful events and separation such as:

  • The illness or death of a loved one.
  • Parental separation and divorce.
  • The death of a beloved pet.
  • Prolonged or chronic illness in themselves.
  • Moving home or school.

This type of anxiety happens equally in males and females, but children who have parents with an anxiety disorder are more likely to experience separation anxiety.

separation anxiety in teens

The Impact of Anxiety on Teenagers

Growing independence and taking more responsibility for themselves can sometimes cause self-doubt in older children. 

Separation anxiety in a teenager can lead to them feeling especially clingy during certain phases of their adolescent years.

For example:

This is when they might need extra help and guidance from their parents, school or mental health professionals.

What are the Symptoms of Teen Separation Anxiety?

Most infants in early childhood (between the ages of 12 and 36 months of age) have separation anxiety. Younger children can cling and seek reassurance from their attachment figure (typically the parent). This is a normal stage of development.

Growing up, teenagers start to extend relationships beyond parents and family members.  But for some, separating away and relying on themselves more can be difficult. You may see physical responses in them which lead to certain behaviours.

Separation anxiety in teenagers can show itself in a number of ways:

Physical Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Adolescence

  • Frequent tummy aches or vomiting.
  • Headaches.
  • Muscle aches or tension.
  • Panic attacks.
  • Extreme and severe crying.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Refusal to do things that require separation.

Emotional Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Adolescence

  •  Clinging to parents and siblings.
  • Repeated nightmares with a theme of separation.
  • Worry or panic when faced with separation from home or family.
  • School refusal and poor school performance.
  • Extreme fear or reluctance of being alone, sometimes at bedtime.
  • Heightened emotional behaviours such as aggression or anger.
  • Withdrawal from communicating and engagement in activities.
  • Worry about themselves, their safety and health.
  • Overly worrying about the safety of a family member.

The Vicious Cycle of Separation Anxiety in Teenagers

Unfortunately, as with other types of anxiety, the thoughts, physical sensations and emotions teens feel as a result of their separation anxiety can actually reinforce the anxiety itself.

Here’s an example of the what can happen in the cycle of separation anxiety in a teenager:

Separation Anxiety Disorder in Teens

Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)

How do we distinguish between normal separation anxiety in teens and a more serious problem: separation anxiety disorder?

The answer is that if the separation anxiety is causing significant distress and impacting the young person’s everyday life, it may meet diagnostic criteria for separation anxiety disorder.

Separation anxiety disorder is a diagnosed mental health disorder.

Separation anxiety in very young children is completely normal. They heavily rely on their parent or caregiver to meet their physical and emotional needs.

But as they get older, it becomes more typical for children to be increasingly comfortable away from their parents. they may go through periods of feeling more unsettled and wanting to be closer to their parents, but in general the pattern is that they grow more and more independent.

Children with separation anxiety disorder do not follow this pattern and may have much more difficulty taking part in typical activities and aspects of everyday life.

In some children, separation anxiety disorder can start in early childhood. Looking back, you may feel that your child has always clung to you more than other children.

Equally it may be the case that your child was developing typically in their independence, but then an event happened which triggered increased separation anxiety.

During their teenage years, separation anxiety disorder can be very distressing and debilitating for teenagers. 

They may find that leaving the house or going out and enjoying social activities becomes problematic. 

Getting to school may become difficult or even impossible.

Separation anxiety can also increase the risk of developing other types of anxiety disorders such as specific phobia, panic disorder and social anxiety disorder.

The good news is that treatment can be highly effective. I’ll talk more about this below.

Separation Anxiety Disorder: How Is It Diagnosed in Teenagers?

If your teenager’s separation anxiety is having a significant impact on their daily life and on family life the first step is to visit your doctor and talk it through. They will determine whether your teenager needs a referral to a mental health professional for more support.

A child psychiatrist or other mental health expert will use specific diagnostic criteria to reach a decision in the diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder and other anxiety disorders.

They will look at the symptoms of separation anxiety disorder and consider whether your child meets the criteria.

For your child to be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, their worry or fear about being away from family members must have been around for at least four weeks.

Separation anxiety can look very much like social phobia. If a child is struggling to socialise with others because of anxiety about their social performance, they may well cling to parents and home. Don’t get hung up on the specific diagnosis. It is much more important to focus on getting effective support and treatment.

mum and son enjoying time together sitting
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Effective Treatment for Separation Anxiety in Teenagers

Treatment for separation anxiety in your teenager may involve a combination of approaches:

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Separation Anxiety in Teens

CBT is an evidence-based therapy for anxiety. Your child will learn specific strategies to handle their anxiety and understand the situations that lead to it.

The therapist will help your child to identify and gently challenge thoughts which are not helping them.

They will also learn to approach their fear (separation) rather than avoiding it, taking baby steps.

Cognitive behavioral therapy is usually conducted by a psychologist or cognitive behavioural therapist. It is often combined with other types of therapy such as compassion-focused therapy.

Outsmart Anxiety online parent course

Separation Anxiety in Teens: School Input

Whether your child is currently able to attend school regularly or not, they need a clear plan designed with school.

What you are looking for in a supportive school is flexibility and nurture.

What specific steps can the school take to help your child feel safe?

For example, if your teen struggles with separation anxiety most at break times what is the designated safe place they can go to, and feel supported?

A written plan is essential. This needs to have the input of school staff, you as parents, your child, and any mental health professionals who are involved.

It’s a good idea for parents and the key member of staff to meet regularly to ensure a joined-up approach.

Consistent Routine is Beneficial for Separation Anxiety

Solid routines can really help your teenager feel safe, secure and grounded. 

They can help them manage their time and cope with the demands of school, work, social time and study. 

Why not start some new, comforting rituals to support your teen through this period of separation anxiety?

For example, perhaps Friday night will become movie night, where you snuggle together on the sofa and eat popcorn. it’s a chance for your anxious teen to feel safe and secure and lower their anxiety for a while.

The Importance of a Family Approach With Separation Anxiety in Teens

Parents play a vital role in any treatment plan for separation anxiety in teenagers.

You can help them to feel safe and secure at home but you may need some guidance from a professional such as a clinical psychologist.

Start by giving your child additional nurture, warmth and messages of reassurance. It doesn’t matter if it feels like your child “should be” past needing certain types of comfort. Sit down to watch something on television together that your teenager really enjoys.  This could be a super nurturing activity which increases safety. Be cautious of excessive or obsessive reassurance-seeking though (see below).

teen anxiety and parent relationships
Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels

Helping Your Teen: Eight Clear Steps

If you notice symptoms of separation anxiety in your teenager, the best thing you can do is to access early treatment and support.  This will help to you to develop effective long term strategies which will improve your child’s quality of life as they move towards adulthood.

Below is an outline of some key principles to use in supporting your teenager’s separation anxiety.

1. Normalise Separation Anxiety For Your Teenager

Let your teenager know that experiencing separation anxiety symptoms can be a normal part of growing up and that they are not alone in feeling this way.

2. Name Your Teen’s Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Encourage your teenager to share their symptoms of separation anxiety. Talking can help to reduce the amount of anxiety they feel.

But more importantly, labeling specific symptoms will reduce their power.

For example if your teenager’s separation anxiety causes them to have a very fast heartbeat when they separate from you, talk about that. Help your teen to see that their thudding heart is just part of the body’s normal fight or flight response. It will pass within a few minutes. it’s nothing to be alarmed about.

3. Acknowledge Fears and Worries About Separating From You

Acknowledge your teenager’s feelings and worries. They are very real for your child even if you find them hard to understand.

Rather than telling them “don’t worry”, or “that won’t happen”, let them know you’ve heard and understood them. Let them know you will work through the worries together.

4. Reassure Your Teen To Build Their Confidence

Reassure and encourage in a way which promotes opportunities for new learning.

Try something like:

“I really think you can do this. You were proud of yourself when you managed to go to your gym class for 20 minutes last week.  Maybe you could try staying for an extra 10 minutes this week?”.

Be aware of providing excessive reassurance though.

This will contribute to a cycle of reassurance-seeking.

If your child phones you five times when you go out for a run to check you are okay, something needs to change. Try agreeing in advance that your child will only phone you once or twice.

5. Understand That Increased Nurture Will Help Your Teen Overcome Separation Anxiety

In the past, it was common for parents to hold the belief that their child just needed to toughen up. children were often told to snap out of it and get on with life.

Nowadays though, psychologists understand much more about attachment thanks to modern research.

Teenagers can’t just snap out of separation anxiety.

If they don’t feel safe, they don’t feel safe.

Feeling unsafe for long periods of time contributes to many mental health problems.

So it’s vital that we help our children feel safe.

Help your child feel safe and secure by spending quality time with them. By having happy and positive family moments. By giving them unconditional love, for example not being over critical.

Of course this is not the entire answer to overcoming your teenagers separation anxiety, but it’s a core ingredient.

6. Be Consistent: Consistency Helps Anxious Teens Feel Safe

Consistency is paramount when it comes to helping teenagers who struggle with separation anxiety. A stable and predictable environment can act as a safety net for anxious teens, offering them a sense of control and security that may be lacking otherwise.

Whether it’s maintaining a regular routine, setting consistent expectations, or reliably being emotionally available, this consistency helps to alleviate some of the unpredictability that can exacerbate your teen’s anxiety.

When your teenager knows what to expect, it removes an element of the unknown, thereby lowering their stress levels.

Parents who are consistent in their actions and responses are providing a crucial emotional anchor for their teens, which can be especially valuable as they navigate the choppy waters of adolescence.

7. Foster Self-Compassion

Encourage positive self-talk and self-compassion in your teenager.

Model these skills when you are with them.

Anxious children and teenagers tend to put themselves down.

It’s important to help them recognise positive steps or positive outcomes. They need to learn to balance their negative views with more helpful or positive ones.

8. Access Help For Your Teenager’s Separation Anxiety

You know your child. You know by instinct if they are not living their life to the full because of their separation anxiety.

Don’t hesitate to seek help from a mental health professional if you can see that your child is stuck in a cycle of anxiety.

Separation Anxiety in Teens: Resources For Parents

  1. Outsmart Anxiety, our parent online course for helping anxious teens.
Parent Online Course: Teens and Under 12s Versions

2. Book: Creswell, C. & Willetts, L.: Helping Your Child With Fears and Worries 

3. Article: Anxiety Worksheets for Teens: A Toolkit for Managing Stress and Worry [Free PDF]

4. Article: Help Beat Back to School Anxiety With This Strategy

5. Article: From Panic to Empowered: Free Fight or Flight PDF and How to Use It

Further Reading

34 Inspirational Quotes For Anxiety Sufferers

10 Ways To Easily Motivate An Anxious Teen

Does Therapy Help With Anxiety?

Anxiety Symptoms in Children

Hayley Vaughan Smith is a Person Centred Counsellor accredited by the National Counselling Society. She is the founder and counsellor at The Ridge Practice in Buckinghamshire, and Counsellor at Everlief Child Psychology.

Hayley has a special interest in bereavement counselling and has worked as a bereavement volunteer with Cruse Bereavement Care since 2019. Being a mum to 3 girls is hard work and rewarding in equal measure and gardening and walking in nature is her own personal therapy – Hayley believes being in nature, whatever the weather, is incredibly beneficial for mental health well-being.

Join They Are The Future’s free Facebook group for regular tips on supporting teens and pre-teens with their mental health! Join the group: Parent Tips for Positive Child Mental Health UK.

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