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Separation anxiety – it can be a two-way street.

Updated: Jun 4

(Yvonne Walker: Dip.Couns MBACP (Accred). Rtd)

Separation anxiety – it can be a two-way street. Simply put, separation anxiety can be summed up as ‘fear or distress over being separated from those you're emotionally attached to’.


Separation anxiety is a common psychological condition that many people experience at transitional points in their lives. It’s generally characterised by feelings of fear, worry, and ultimately, distress when separated from a loved one or a familiar environment. More frequently it’s discussed in relation to children who are having trouble coping with the absence of a parent or caregiver. However, separation anxiety can also affect adults, leading to feelings of insecurity and unease when parted from those who are significant in their lives - including adult children who are leaving home as well as parents who are facing up to their children flying the nest and moving away.


From a psychoanalytic perspective, the anxiety may stem from unresolved attachment issues relating to past experiences of loss or trauma, from insecure attachment styles, and from a lack of coping skills, resulting in a deep fear of losing the emotional bond that exists between parent and child.


In young children, separation anxiety can arise when they are having to adjust to sleeping alone or when they first go to nursery or school. Behaviours can include clinginess, crying, and tantrums.


Adult children who are getting ready to leave home, venture out into the world and establish their own identity can also experience separation anxiety. They may feel guilty about leaving their parent/s behind or worry about how their parent/s will cope without them. Adult children may feel overwhelmed, too, by the prospect of taking on new responsibilities and making important life decisions independently, without the guidance and support of their parent.


And for parents, the impending departure of their adult child can also give rise to separation anxiety, triggering a range of feelings including grief, loss, rejection, abandonment, and a sense of emptiness. These feelings can be particularly pronounced if the parent, sometimes unknowingly, has relied heavily on their child for emotional support, or if they are finding it difficult to let go of their role as a caregiver. The parent may also experience feelings of anxiety about their child's well-being and ability to navigate the world independently, even though they are themselves now adult. Excessive worrying, difficulty concentrating, and avoidance of social situations are common side effects of social anxiety in adults, as are physical symptoms such as headaches, nausea, or sleep disturbance.


When an adult child is preparing to leave home, both parent/s and adult child may be struggling with separation anxiety simultaneously, and this challenging combination can create a complex and emotionally charged situation. Feelings of both parent and child may be particularly acute when the adult child is planning to live a considerable distance away or emigrate.


Overcoming separation anxiety generally requires a combination of self-awareness, the development of coping strategies, and the enlisting of support from others, eg family members, friends, or other trusted individuals.


If you are experiencing separation anxiety, one of the first steps in managing it is to identify the root causes of your fear and feelings of insecurity. This may involve reflecting on past experiences of loss or abandonment, as well as exploring any underlying beliefs or assumptions that contribute to your feelings of anxiety. You might feel confident enough to undertake this exploration yourself, perhaps with the help of an understanding family member or trusted friend. But if you feel the need for more skilled help, then you might want to contact an experienced therapist or counsellor.


Once the underlying causes of your separation anxiety have been identified, the next step is to begin developing coping strategies to help you manage your fear and distress. These strategies could include relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or mindfulness meditation. You could try engaging in meaningful activities to help you achieve a sense of purpose and wellbeing, or simply fun pursuits to provide you with some periods of healthy distraction.

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Support from friends, family or other people in your social network can also play an important role in helping you move forward, providing you with a feeling of connection and community, and boosting your overall sense of wellbeing. Online support groups are something else to consider.


If both you and your adult child are experiencing anxiety due to an impending separation or a separation that has already taken place, it’s important for both of you to be able to acknowledge and address your feelings. In this situation, therapy can be a useful tool to enable both of you look at the underlying issues that are contributing to your anxiety and help you both develop coping strategies to manage your emotions. Therapy can also provide a safe space to allow for open and honest communication in this charged situation, enabling both you, the parent, and your adult son or daughter to process your emotions and navigate this transitional period with greater understanding and support.


Ultimately, overcoming separation anxiety is a gradual process that requires self-awareness, self-care, and support from others. By acknowledging and addressing the root causes of your anxiety, by developing effective coping strategies, and by seeking appropriate help, you can learn to manage the debilitating fear of separation from your loved one and build inner strength and resilience in the face of change and uncertainty. You can be confident that with time and effort, it is possible to overcome separation anxiety, achieve peace of mind and lead a more confident and fulfilling life.


Yvonne Walker: Counsellor (Retired)



Before retiring, Yvonne Walker was a practising counsellor with many years of experience. She managed a busy counselling service in the North of England, offering a range of support including bereavement counselling, end of life counselling, counselling for children and young people, palliative counselling, as well as a women’s service and an advocacy service for vulnerable adults with a learning disability.

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