New study on treatment of separation anxiety disorder

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Professor Silvia Schneider, Director of Clinical Psychology of Children and Adolescents at the University of Basel, Switzerland has just published in the current issue ‘Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics’ a groundbreaking new study on treatment of separation anxiety disorder

This is the first study to show that cognitive behaviour therapy is effective on young children. Until now, there has been no randomised controlled trial involving a disorder specific treatment program for children suffering from separation anxiety disorder.

The study

Forty three children between the ages of 5 and 7, all diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, were assigned to one of two groups. The children’s parents were also involved.

One group received a 16 session disorder-specific separation anxiety disorder treatment program which included parent training and classical cognitive behaviour therapy. The other group were assigned to a 12 week waiting list.

Data on anxiety, impairment/distress and quality of life was collected at the start of the trial, after treatment or spending time on the waiting list, and at a 4 week follow up.


Significantly, over 91 percent of the children had improved immediately after treatment. The children were rated either by themselves, their parents or their therapist.

At the follow up, over 76 percent of the children in the treatment group no longer satisfied the criteria for a diagnosis of separation anxiety disorder compared to just under 14 percent in the waiting list group.

The researchers concluded that the results indicate the short term efficacy of a disorder specific treatment approach for separation anxiety disorder.

Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder

The main symptom of separation anxiety disorder is severe distress when separated from the attachment figure i.e. mother, father, significant other or home etc. or when separation is anticipated.

This can manifest itself as persistent fretting, crying, worrying, fear and anxiety, and a reluctance to let go of the subject of attachment. A child may not want to go to sleep or go out or go to school and may suffer from nightmares where the recurrent theme is separation or being lost. Other symptoms that may be present can include stomach pains, headaches, and feeling nauseous.

Separation anxiety disorder may also be a symptom of another underlying condition such as ADHD, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Panic disorder or other mental health problem and so a proper assessment by a qualified practitioner is necessary for an accurate diagnosis.

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