sealPurdue News

February 1998

Separation anxiety No. 1 childhood anxiety, experts say

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- Many children fear the boogie man and the monster under the bed, but some children's fears have nothing to do with make-believe creatures. For them, separating from their parents -- even for a short time -- creates great physical or emotional distress.

"More children suffer from anxiety disorders than any other psychological problem," says Wendy Nilsen, graduate therapist in the Purdue University Anxiety Clinic. "The most common type of anxiety in children is fear of being separated from their parents." These children fear that they will become hurt or lost while away from their parents or that their parents will be in danger.

Nilsen says a child's natural temperament can play a part in separation anxiety. Also, many children go through a developmental stage where they fear strangers or separation from their parents -- usually starting at about age 9 months and ending about age 2, says Scott Vrana, associate professor of psychological sciences and director of the Anxiety Clinic. However, for some children the problem persists throughout childhood, even causing problems in adolescence and adulthood.

"Very often, it is not seen until the child starts preschool, or a parent takes a job outside the home for the first time," Vrana says. "Sometimes life stresses, such as a serious illness or changing schools, can trigger separation anxiety."

How do you know if your child needs help dealing with the problem? "If the child doesn't calm down within 10 minutes after you leave, or if the anxiety goes on for weeks -- those are signs that your child may need counseling for the problem," Vrana says. Other signals: A child who worries to the point of becoming sick or who refuses to play or sleep-over away from home.

Although parents generally don't cause the problem, they can contribute to it, Vrana says. "If children say they don't want to go to school or day care, and you let them stay home and play games and watch videos, then you aren't helping the situation," he says.

Vrana and Nilsen offer tips for all parents faced with children upset about being apart from them for a period of time:

CONTACTS: Vrana and Nilsen, (765) 494-6996; e-mail,
Compiled by Beth Forbes, (765) 494-9723; e-mail,
Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; e-mail,

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