The Phenomenon of Separation Anxiety
A child may not suffer from a full-fledged disorder, yet anxiety and fearfulness still can interfere with physical and emotional well-being. In our work at Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Child Anxiety Disorders Clinic (CADC), we have found that as many as 50 percent of children and adolescents in a general school population report at least one symptom of separation anxiety. This may sound inconsequential, but a parent whose child refuses to go to school quickly learns how disruptive this can be for the whole family.
Separation anxiety, however, is not just about children who are afraid to go to or stay at school. Our research at CADC has identified four distinct types of separation anxiety, each with their own unique concerns. The first two types are the Follower and the Visitor. The Follower is afraid to be alone in one part of the house during the day (even if the parent is present elsewhere in the house), while the Visitor is afraid to sleep alone at night.
The Follower has a significant fear of getting sick (vomiting) that is so great that the child needs to “shadow” the parent, just in case illness occurs. In some cases, the parent cannot even go to the bathroom alone.
The Visitor is terrified of an intruder break-in — so much so, that someone must remain alert throughout the night. The Visitor may stay up very late, visit the parent’s bedroom repeatedly or, end up sleeping in the parental bed. And while fear of sleeping alone at night is our most common referral, Visitors are not limited to young children. We see many young adolescents as well who are still sleeping in the parental bed, not by family choice.
Unlike the Follower and the Visitor who are afraid to be alone, the Misfortune Teller and the Timekeeper are both afraid of being abandoned. The Misfortune Teller doesn’t like to venture far from home because of the possibility of a personal catastrophe, such as a panic attack or a serious illness. As a result, the Misfortune Teller is fearful of participating in social and extracurricular activities unless a “safe person” who can prevent the catastrophe from occurring remains nearby.
The Timekeeper is afraid of being dropped off places because of dreadful worries that something terrible will occur to the parent, such as being killed in a car accident. For this reason, the Timekeeper may refuse to separate from the parent to go anywhere, unless granted constant access (e.g., cell phone) to the parent’s whereabouts. The Timekeeper keeps track of a parent’s every waking moment.