Max was dropped off at college as a freshman. He had convinced himself it was going to be great. For months he’d been telling his parents how badly he wanted out of the house, and how desperate he was for a new life away at school. Secretly though he was very nervous. Max was one of those children who cried when he was dropped off at preschool…for the entire first month. Then he cried for his first couple weeks of kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and even third grade. By fourth grade he didn’t show so much distress when there were dramatic changes, but that’s only because he kept the feelings buried. He was old enough to realize he’d be made fun of if he cried for his mom once he was nine, ten and even eleven years old.
Max never went to sleepovers. He was invited, but he said he preferred to stay home. The only way he’d go on any camping trips or trips with sports teams was if one of his parents was a chaperone. Simply put, Max couldn’t get comfortable without one of his “safe adults” with him as a child.
When Max started college he quickly found his separation anxiety had followed him into adulthood. He missed his home life terribly. He had a very difficult time adjusting to college because that anxiety was so intense. He called and texted his parents ten times a day. He came home on every weekend he could manage to get a ride. Max was so sad to be away from home that the anxiety started to manifest in physical ways. He started having chronic stomach aches. Max was surprised that these never occurred days before he’d visit home, but would always begin again the night before he had to return to school. This persisted for the first 6 months of college.
When we think of separation anxiety, we think of children. We imagine small children clinging to mom’s or dad’s legs and hysterically sobbing when mom or dad have to leave. However, separation anxiety is also an anxiety disorder that exists for adults. It can be so intense that it mat interfere with an adult’s ability to function at their potential. It can disrupt social interactions, academic performance, and vocational performance. For a teenager then, we expect to see a lot of resistance and avoidance around school trips, summer camps, staying away from family for more than a day or two, and a real struggle getting used to college.
If you find your teen is having nightmares about being separated from the family, doesn’t want to go on weekend trips with his/her sports team, or talks about someone close dying or becoming gravely ill on a regular basis, separation anxiety might be to blame. This is particularly true if your teenager had a really difficult time away from you as a small child. Most teenagers will be reluctant to admit they are still struggling with this as they will believe they should be able to handle it by this age. Talk to your son or daughter a little bit about Max’s story and see what is said. Separation anxiety is definitely hard for anybody, and it isn’t necessarily something that only occurs in children.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT