In this article we shall consider those situations where losing or being forced to abandon a person to whom one is deeply attached causes anxiety, an internal response of extreme malaise which may result in a variety of psychological conditions and occasionally in physical reactions.

During infancy and childhood

This type of fear frequently occurs in children when they are separated from persons to whom they are deeply attached and during crucial developmental changes and phases of personal growth. Anxiety presenting in events related to separation is a natural part of the process of growing up and attaining an appropriate level of emotional balance and maturity; it can be overcome however as the cognitive processes develop and emotional security is acquired.

The phenomenon normally appears in the second half of the first year of life and reaches a point of maximum intensity between the ages of 14 and 20 months. Separation anxiety will then gradually dwindle and become less frequent during infancy and the pre-school period (Kagan, 1983). One may speak in terms of a disorder or of the presentation of clinically-significant symptoms when these become clearly excessive and long-lasting.

For example, children presenting this kind of disorder are extremely ‘nostalgic’ when they are away from home, express a strong fear they may never see their parents again and avoid exploring the environment on their own account. They may experience difficulty when they have to go to bed and may have nightmares. The manifestations of the disorder vary with age. When they are older, these children’s fears may be related to specific dangers concerning their parents, their home or themselves. The onset of the disturbance may occur following a triggering event, which may be a particularly stressful situation or episode (being transferred somewhere, a change of school, the death of a parent, relative or caregiver, being separated from one’s parents etc).

During adulthood

Separation anxiety in adulthood is a disorder that limits independent activity and the capacity of the person to cope with general changes and certain specific changes. The array of manifestations will include a hyper-protective attitude and extreme worry about members of the family in general or some caregivers or relations in particular.

When the disturbance presents during adulthood, the symptoms tend to be generally disregarded. Anxiety engendered on account of a distancing from one’s partner, for example, or from one’s familiar surrounding and environment is quite often minimized and deemed as devoid of any great significance and meaning. Excessive attachment, the need to be reassured by means of the constant physical presence of others, fantasies relating to the possibility that something dire may occur to one’s loved ones: these and other symptomatic manifestations are easily ignored and misunderstood. They are in fact often construed - by those suffering from such types of malaise - as  manifestations and proof of ‘love’, natural ‘worry’ and ‘attention’ paid to the persons who are the object of such concern. In some cases, these symptoms present in association with phobic syndromes and panic attacks.

Attachment and Separation

Nowadays, we may refer to a considerable number of studies and in-depth research on the importance of the first years of life in relation to psychological development. The studies conducted by S. Freud., M. Mahler, M. Klein, H.R. Schaffer, J. Piaget, R. Spitz, D.W. Winnicott, J. Bowlby, W.R. Bion, M. Balint, H. Hartmann and others provides us with evidence of the factors that influence the healthy development of the personality. Thus, the phases of ‘dependence’ or of ‘attachment’ during infancy are the basis upon which the future capacity of an adult to construct affective bonds is built.

For Bowlby, the most important variable lies in "the extent to which a child’s parents, a) provide their offspring with a secure base, and b) encourage their children to explore their surroundings, starting from that secure base. In the first instance, this implies a comprehensive and intuitive knowledge of the ‘attachment behaviour’ of the child, the intention and desire to promote and facilitate such behaviour - thereby causing its cessation - and, secondly, the  recognition that one of the most common reasons underlying infantile rage is frustration of the desire for care and affection and that manifestations of anxiety usually reflect a sense of insecurity with respect to the continuity of the ‘availability’ of the child’s parents."

Again, quoting from Bowlby’s works: "It would appear necessary to postulate that any representational model of the attachment figure or of the self, which an individual forms during childhood and adolescence tends to persist in a relatively immature way until and during adulthood. Consequently, the person will tend to assimilate every new person encountered in life (with whom a significant relationship or bond may be created) with a pre-existing model ..." The continuity of attention and response of the mother with respect to the needs of the child allow for the achievement of a ‘secure attachment’ relationship. Secure attachment is a child/adult relationship in which the child derives pleasure from his/her contact with a close caregiver and uses this person as a "secure base" from which he/she may start to explore the environment.

As shown by the research carried out by M. Ainsworth (1978), children that present secure attachment at one year of age actively explore the environment when they are with their mother and are become anxious when separated from her. They affectionately receive their mother when she returns and love to have physical contact with her. However, unlike children who do not have a secure attachment base they show no interest in exploring the environment in the mother’s presence, are highly stressed when the mother moves away (or, on the contrary, show little distress) and, at her return, present an ambivalent attitude or avoidance.

Observations and related long-term effects

Children who develop secure attachment at age 12-18 months reveal a stronger capacity for solving problems at age 2 (Frankel & Bates, 1990) and are more creative in symbolic play and games (Slade, 1987). When observed some years later, children who have developed a secure base of attachment, are comfortable when taking the initiative, secure, curious and ready to learn. However, children that develop an insecure form of attachment are less decisive, are reluctant to take the initiative and are less curious and less interested in learning (E. Waters, Wippman and Sroufe, 1979). With regards to adulthood, a study carried out on a sample population of college students shows that:

Individuals who recall their primary attachment relationship as ‘stable’ and ‘secure’ are judged as less anxious and less hostile than people of their own age and are less likely to feel lonely and experience personal distress than their friends who describe their primary attachment relations as ‘insecure’ (Kobak & Sceery, 1988).

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