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Separation Anxiety (cont.)

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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 of calming 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.

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),
  • escitalopram (Lexapro),
  • vortioxetine (Brintellix).

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),
  • 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 anticholinergic 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), lorazepam (Ativan), 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 or suffers from incapacitating symptoms of anxiety.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/24/2016


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