Separation Anxiety (cont.)
Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD
Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
In this Article
- Separation anxiety disorder facts
- What is separation anxiety disorder?
- What are the symptoms and signs of separation anxiety disorder?
- What are causes and risk factors for separation anxiety disorder?
- How is separation anxiety disorder diagnosed?
- What is the treatment for separation anxiety disorder?
- What happens if separation anxiety disorder is left untreated?
- Where can I find more information on separation anxiety disorder?
What are causes and risk factors for separation anxiety disorder?
Separation anxiety disorder (as with most mental-health conditions) is likely caused by the combination of genetic and environmental vulnerabilities rather than by any one thing.
In addition to being more common in children with family histories of anxiety, children whose mothers were stressed during pregnancy with them tend to be more at risk for developing this disorder.
A majority of children with separation anxiety disorder have school refusal as a symptom and up to 80% of children who refuse school qualify for the diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder. Approximately 50%-75% of children who suffer from this disorder come from homes of low socioeconomic status.
How is separation anxiety disorder diagnosed?
Health-care professionals who have training and experience understanding symptoms of children and adolescents are usually the most qualified to assess separation anxiety disorder. The assessment most often involves a pediatrician and child psychologist, child psychiatrist, or other mental-health professional interviewing both the child and his or her parent(s) when assessing separation anxiety disorder. Those interviews often take place separately to allow everyone to speak freely. This is particularly important given how differently children and their parents may see the situation and how difficult it can be for children to hear their problems discussed. In addition to asking about specific symptoms of anxiety, the professional will likely explore whether the child has symptoms of any other mental-health issues and will recommend that the child receive a full physical examination and lab work to ensure that there is no medical reason for the issues the child is experiencing.
What is the treatment for separation anxiety disorder?
Counseling, rather than medication, is the treatment of choice for separation anxiety disorder that is mild in severity. For children who either have not improved with counseling alone, suffer from more severe symptoms, have other emotional problems in addition to separation disorder, treatment should consist of a combination of approaches. Psychotherapy, medication, and parent counseling are three interventions that have been found to be effective for the treatment of separation anxiety disorder, particularly in combination.
Behavioral modification therapy is an intervention that directly addresses the behavioral symptoms of separation anxiety disorder. This intervention tends to be more effective and less burdensome to the child if behaviors are addressed positively rather than negatively. The child is not usually punished for continuing to suffer from symptoms but rewarded for small victories over symptoms. For example, instead of withholding dessert from a preschooler who refuses to go into her room for bedtime, give hugs and praise for the child when she can go near her room at first, followed by being able to go in and stay for five minutes, increasing the length of time she needs to be in her room before being praised. Even if she needs significant parental support at first (for example, sitting in the room with her on the parent's lap, then next to her, then just outside the room after she becomes comfortable with each step), this approach allows the child to feel a sense of success at every step and build on it rather than experiencing a sense of failure, which tends to lower the child's likelihood of being able to overcome her anxiety. The implementation of behavioral therapy generally involves the practitioner providing parenting tips to the child's caregivers, regular meetings with the child, and may include guidance to teachers on how to help alleviate the child's anxiety.
Cognitive therapy is used to help children learn how they think and increase their ability to solve problems and focus on the positive things that are going on, even in the midst of their anxiety. By learning to focus on more positive thoughts and feelings, children may become more open to learning strategies to deal with anxiety, such as playing games, coloring, watching television, or listening to music. Although formal relaxation techniques such as imagining themselves in a relaxing situation may be considered more appropriate interventions for older children, adolescents, and adults, even toddlers can be taught simple relaxation techniques, such as imitating their parents, taking deep breaths, or slowly counting to 10 as ways to calm themselves.
If psychotherapy is unsuccessful or if the children's symptoms are so severe that they are nearly incapacitating, medication is considered a viable option. However, there are no medications specifically approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat separation anxiety disorder. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as fluvoxamine (Luvox) have been found to be an effective treatment for separation anxiety disorder.
Learn more about: Luvox
SSRIs are medications that increase the amount of the neurochemical serotonin in the brain. These medications work by selectively inhibiting (blocking) serotonin reuptake in the brain. This block occurs at the synapse, the place where brain cells (neurons) are connected to each other. Serotonin is one of the chemicals in the brain that carries messages across these connections (synapses) from one neuron to another.
The SSRIs work by keeping serotonin present in high concentrations in the synapses. These drugs do this by preventing the reuptake of serotonin back into the sending nerve cell. The reuptake of serotonin is responsible for turning off the production of new serotonin. Therefore, the serotonin message keeps on coming through. It is thought that this, in turn, helps arouse (activate) cells that have been deactivated by anxiety, thereby relieving a child's anxiety symptoms.
SSRIs have fewer side effects than the tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs). These medications do not tend to cause orthostatic hypotension (a sudden drop in blood pressure when sitting up or standing) or heart rhythm disturbances, like the TCAs. Therefore, SSRIs are often the first-line medication treatment for separation anxiety disorder. Examples of SSRIs include
- fluoxetine (Prozac),
- fluvoxamine (Luvox),
- paroxetine (Paxil),
- sertraline (Zoloft),
- citalopram (Celexa),
- and escitalopram (Lexapro).
SSRIs are generally well tolerated, and side effects are usually mild. The most common side effects are nausea, diarrhea, agitation, insomnia, and headache. Side effects generally go away within the first month of SSRI use. Some patients experience tremors with SSRIs. The serotonin syndrome (also called serotonergic [caused by serotonin] syndrome) is a serious neurologic condition associated with the use of SSRIs, characterized by high fevers, seizures, and heart rhythm disturbances. There has also been heightened concern that children and adolescents are at increased risk of having the rare reaction of feeling acutely (suddenly and significantly) more anxious or newly depressed, even to the point of wanting, planning, attempting or in extremely rare cases, completing suicide or homicide. Serotonin syndrome, as well as acute worsening of emotional symptoms, is very rare.
All people are unique biochemically so the occurrence of side effects or the lack of a satisfactory result with one SSRI does not mean another medication in this group will not be beneficial. However, if someone in the patient's family had a positive response to a particular drug, that drug may be preferable to try first. Medications that are sometimes considered in treating separation anxiety disorder when SSRIs either don't work or are poorly tolerated include tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) and benzodiazepines. These medications were developed in the 1950s and 1960s to treat depression. TCAs work mainly by increasing the level of norepinephrine in the brain synapses, although they also may affect serotonin levels. Examples of tricyclic antidepressants include
- amitriptyline (Elavil),
- desipramine (Norpramin),
- nortriptyline (Aventyl, Pamelor),
- and imipramine (Tofranil).
TCAs are generally safe and well tolerated when properly prescribed and administered. Overdose of TCAs can cause life-threatening heart rhythm disturbances. Rarely, this can occur even if an overdose is not taken. Some TCAs can also have anti-cholinergic side effects, which are due to the blocking of the activity of the nerves that are responsible for control of the heart rate, gut motion, visual focus, and saliva production. Thus, some TCAs can produce dry mouth, blurred vision, constipation, and dizziness upon standing. The dizziness results from low blood pressure. TCAs should also be avoided in patients with seizure disorders or a history of strokes.
Benzodiazepines tend to be the least-prescribed group of medications to children suffering from separation anxiety disorder. This group of medications is thought to work by increasing the activity of calming chemicals in the brain. Benzodiazepines include clonazepam (Klonopin) and alprazolam (Xanax). Unfortunately, there is a possible risk of the child becoming dependent on benzodiazepines. These medications tend to only be used as a last resort, when the child has had unsuccessful trials of the other two classes of medications.
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