Separation Anxiety

Research on Separation Anxiety

Empirical research shows that there is a strong causal relationship between an individual’s experience with his parents and how he attaches to and separates from others.  A child’s relationship with his parents or primary caregivers also affects his later capacity to make affectional bonds.

John Bowlby’s ‘Attachment Theory’, emphasizes that the way separation is handled is the key to secure bonding.  He also speaks about parents providing a ‘secure base’ both in reality and in the child’s mind, from which he can explore the world and to which he can return immediately should when danger threaten.

Separation Anxiety is a way of conceptualising the propensity of human beings to make affectionate bonds with others.  It provides explanations to the many forms of emotional distress and personality disturbance, including anxiety, anger, depression and emotional detachment, to which unwilling separation and loss give rise.

Early Life Attachment

Attachment behaviour to a preferred figure develops during the first months of life and it remains readily activated until the end of the third year.  In healthy development, it becomes gradually less activated thereafter.  Conditions that activate attachment behaviour in a child include strangeness, hunger, fatigue and anything frightening.  Terminating conditions include sight or sound of mother-figure and especially being comforted by her.

When attachment behaviour is strongly aroused, termination may require touching, clinging to or being cuddled by mother.  On the other hand, when mother is present or her whereabouts well known, a child ceases to show attachment behaviour and instead explores his environment.  In such a situation, mother can be regarded as providing her child with a secure base from which to explore and to which he can return, especially should he be tired or frightened.

Throughout the rest of a person’s life, he is likely to show the same pattern of behaviour, moving away from those he loves yet always maintaining contact and sooner or later returning. Exploratory activity enables a person to build up a coherent picture of the environment which is important for survival.  Learning to distinguish the familiar from the strange is a key process in the development of attachment.

How attachment affects our lives

With age, the frequency and intensity with which attachment behaviour is exhibited diminishes.  Nevertheless, all these forms of behaviour persist as an important part of man’s behavioural equipment.  In adults, they are especially evident when a person is distressed, ill or afraid.  The particular patterns of behaviour shown by an individual would partly depend on his present age, sex, personality, circumstances and partly on the experience he has had with attachment figures in his earlier life.

Advocates of attachment theory argue that many forms of psychiatric disturbance can be attributed either to deviations in the development of attachment or, more rarely, to failure of its development.  If a person is to be helped therapeutically, it is necessary that he is enabled to consider in detail how his present modes of perceiving and dealing with emotionally significant persons may be being influenced and, perhaps, seriously distorted by the experiences which he had with his parents during the years of his childhood and adolescence, some of which may perhaps be continuing into the present.

Separation Anxiety

Anxiety over an unwilling separation or loss is a perfectly normal and healthy reaction.  However, Bowlby saw separation anxiety as a response to real parental inconsistency or absence in childhood, leading to clinging and fearful behaviour in the victim whose fears of being abandoned are realistic.  How attachment and separation is handled by parent or care-giver determines, in great degree, whether or not the individual grows up to be mentally healthy i.e. to hold the balance between immersion and detachment as a parent, have the ability to achieve stability and security while still being ready to explore new territory and to be able to come to terms with loss and grief appropriately.  In terms of attachment theory, such individuals are able to help themselves and are able to accept help should difficulties arise for them.

How we defend against Separation Anxiety

Bowlby looked at defenses in terms of relationships, basing his view on attachment theory.  Secure attachment provides a positive primary defense, while secondary or pathological defenses retain closeness to rejecting or unreliable attachment figures.

Avoidant Attachment

In “avoidant attachment” (where a child felt rejected or abandoned), both neediness and aggression are split off and the individual has no conscious knowledge of the need to be near the attachment figure, appearing aloof and distant.  The picture such a person presents is one of assertive independence and emotional self-sufficiency.  On no account is he going to be beholden to anyone and in so far as he enters into relationships at all, he makes sure he retains control.  Unconsciously, there is a yearning for love and care.  There is also unconscious anger at those who failed to give it to him in earlier life.

Seligman’s studies of learned helplessness (Seligman 1975), which is also compatible with the traditional view, is that someone who is readily plunged into prolonged moods of hopelessness and helplessness has been exposed repeatedly during infancy and childhood to situations in which his attempts to influence his parents to give him more time, affection and understanding have met with nothing but rebuff and punishment.

Ambivalent Attachment

In “ambivalent attachment” (where there is inconsistency in parenting) omnipotence and denial of autonomy lead to clinging and uncontrolled demands.  Though such individuals are prepared to attach, it would be frightening for them as they possibly had to survive a lot of mood swings in their early attachment.  Trust would also be an issue for them.  Such a person is also likely to be subject to strong unconscious yearnings for love and support which may express themselves in some form of attention-seeking behaviour i.e. hypochondria.

Individuals so far described have a terrible fear of separation.  A serious illness intensifies anxiety and perhaps guilt.  Death or separation confirms the person’s worst expectations and leads to despair as well as separation anxiety.

Insecure Attachment

In the case of the “insecure ambivalent attached”, mourning is likely to be characterised by unusually intense anger, self-reproach and depression which is likely to persist for much longer than normal.  In the case of the “insecure avoidant attached” mourning may be delayed for months or years, though strain and irritability are usually present and episodic depression may occur but often such a long time later that the causal connection with the death or separation is lost to sight.  Therefore, for much of the time he may appear to manage wonderfully well, but there may be times when he becomes depressed or develops psychosomatic symptoms, often for no reason he knows of.  Marital crisis is often traced to the persisting consequences of failed mourning after childhood loss especially in those who have become compulsively self-reliant.

Emotionally Detached

One of the many other patterns of disturbed family functioning and personality development that can be understood in terms of pathological development of attachment behaviour is the “emotionally detached individual” who is incapable of maintaining a stable affectional bond with anyone.  They are often delinquent and suicidal.  The typical history is one of prolonged deprivation of maternal care during the earliest years of life, usually combined with later rejection and/or threats of rejection by parents or care-givers.

Repetition of Attachment Pattern

Whatever representational models of attachment figures and of self an individual builds during his childhood and adolescence, these tend to persist relatively unchanged into and throughout adult life.  As a result he tends to assimilate any new person, with whom he may form a bond, to an existing model (either of one or other parent or of self) and often continues to do so despite repeated evidence that the model is inappropriate.

Similarly, he expects to be perceived and treated by them in ways that would be appropriate to his self-model and to continue with such expectations despite contrary evidence. This leads to misconceived beliefs about other people, to false expectations as to the way they will behave and to inappropriate actions.

Early experiences can set up certain dynamic processes that become entrenched or ingrained and that tend to continue, despite subsequent alteration of the situation.  Thus, early maternal deprivation can be viewed as eliciting defensive processes which serve to insulate a child against the painful frustration that would arise were he to seek interaction with an environment that is un-stimulating and unresponsive.

Once entrenched, such defensive processes tend to maintain themselves, continuing to insulate the child, adolescent or adult against interaction, even when some new environment would prove supportive, responsive and helpful were he only able to be receptive.  Whilst especially evident during early childhood, attachment behaviour is held to characterise human beings from the cradle to the grave.

It is important to add that parental inconsistency or absence in childhood, which can lead to separation anxiety, can be due, for example, to long periods in hospital, emotional problems of parents derived from their own unhappy childhood, depression or some other disabilities or difficulties. However, it is not about determining who is to blame but about tracing causal chains with a view to breaking them or ameliorating their consequences.


Bowlby, John (1997) A Secure Base (Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory) London: Routledge
Bowlby, John (1979) The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds London: Tavistock
Klein, Josephine (1997) Our Need for Others and its Roots in Infancy London: Routledge
Bretherton, Inge New Perspectives on Attachment Relations – Articles

Contact the Author of This Article

If you would like to get in touch with the author please click below and send a quick email.