Separation anxiety is characterised by intense fear and distress when a person is away from their loved ones. Separation anxiety is a common yet complex emotional experience. It is generally observed in children, but it can affect adult relationships as well. Thus, understanding separation anxiety is crucial to building long-term relationships. In this article, we will explore the three phases of separation anxiety in depth

Understanding Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety commonly shows up in children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years. Adults can experience separation anxiety as well, especially if there has been attachment-related trauma in childhood. Separation anxiety typically manifests in three phases, which are protest, despair, and detachment. Let’s explore these phases in detail

  • Protest

The first phase of separation anxiety is protest. It is a natural response to the perceived threat of separation from a loved one. In infants and young children, the protest may show up in multiple ways, such as crying, actively searching for their parents, and attempting to reach out to them physically. If the parent comes back while the child is still in the protest phase, children can usually be comforted within a few minutes. They are likely to feel safe due to the parent’s return. Thus, caregivers play a key role by providing security to the child in this stage

In adults, the protest may take other forms, such as shouting, crying, or arguing when a loved one is about to leave or threatens to leave. Open communication and seeking reassurance from loved ones can help navigate the protest phase in adulthood.

  • Despair

When protests are ineffective, infants and young children may show signs of despair. In the despair phase, it might seem as if the child has stopped crying or settled down, but in reality, the child may have given up the possibility of reuniting with their parent, leading to a sense of hopelessness. When the parent comes back after the despair phase, the child might need extra care and attention to feel better and trust that the parent will be available to care for them in the future.

In adult relationships, despair may manifest in forms such as withdrawal, mood swings, numbness, or disinterest towards the loved one. Open communication and mindfully engaging in activities that bring back comfort in the relationship can help resolve this phase.

  • Detachment

Detachment is a coping mechanism people use to manage the emotional pain associated with separation. Children in the detachment phase might appear unaffected by the absence of their parents. When they reunite with their parents, they may seem indifferent or uninterested.  If children go through protest and despair and spend a long time in the denial/detachment phase without getting professional help, it could have lasting effects on their relationships throughout life.

In adulthood, detachment may manifest in the form of physical and emotional disconnection. Adults may completely withdraw from the relationship with no interest in attempts for connection. They may even look to terminate the relationship. Recovering from the detachment phase requires sensitivity and providing support without asking for immediate reconnection. Gradually making efforts to build trust can help move on from the detachment phase.


Separation anxiety is common among children, but it can impact adult relationships as well, especially if there is attachment trauma in childhood. Understanding the three phases of separation anxiety is crucial to building healthy, long-term relationships. Navigating separation anxiety requires sensitivity and open communication. If separation anxiety is overwhelming, it might be helpful to consult a mental health professional.


  1. Practice, R. A. M. or M. T. (2021, January 21). How Protest & Despair Responses Shape Adult Relationships—
  2. Protest, Despair, Detachment: 3 Predictable Responses to Loss of Safe Connection – Michelle Mays. (2022, April 12).

Dhruva Koranne

Dhruva Koranne has completed his Masters in Applied Psychology from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, BALM. He has been practicing as a counsellor since 2020 and works to create a safe space for clients where they can open up. In addition to this, Dhruva loves researching and studying about upcoming theories in the field of Psychology. Connect with him on Linkedin