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Daughter with separation anxiety from boyfriend


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My 20 year old daughter dropped out of university last year because she did not want to be away from her boyfriend who had moved to another country . She returned home to Hong Kong from the UK and had developed OCD - in her case it was ritualistic tapping of switches, telephones and stepping in particular patterns when she walks. She stopped communicating with the entire family and her friends, did not leave the house at all and only watched TV, ate and slept. She only spoke to her boyfriend on the telephone and then seemed perfectly normal. When she hung up she was back in her OCD/anxiety state.

She saw a psychiatrist and a psychologist who both suggested that she had severe anxiety and could control this with medication and CBT. She refused the medication but had CBT. I am not sure if this has helped at all.

Her boyfriend then came to stay with us for 4 months and it was like a miracle cure when he arrived. She spoke normally, the rituals dissappeared and she became a normal young woman again with a social life.

Anyway her boyfriend left 2 weeks ago and all her OCD behaviour has returned.

It is as though she has put her life on hold waiting for her boyfriend. We have agreed for her to go and study in Australia ( where her boyfriend now lives) and she will be leaving next week. I am very concerned that she is so dependent on this young man. I have spoken to him about it all and he is supportive but to be honest he has never seen her in an anxoius state as he is the "cure".

This seems like a type of seperation anxiety. Does this occur in adults?

I do not know what I can do to support her and I am fearful of sending her off to Australia with no support network and yet that is all she wants to do. Has anyone any experience of this type of anxiety before?

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Hi Debbie

I too suffer from Anxiety, but not the kind that your daughter suffers from! To be honest I have never heard of this kind of Anxiety before? Obviously, there is such kind of this Anxiety or your daughter wouldn't be feeling like she does?

If she is refusing medication there's not much you can do? It seems very strange that she is back to normal when she either see's, or speaks to her boyfriend? Please don't take this the wrong way, but is she not acting like this just to try and get her boyfriend to stay with her constantly? Or to be with her boyfriend?

Usually, if you know that there's something wrong with you, you would take all the advice & help you can get, to help you to try and come to terms with what you are suffering? For her to turn medication down and refuse to take it, makes me think that she could be acting like this so as to be with her boyfriend. She accepted the CBT as it doesn't involve any medication. But for her to accept the medication, basically means that she is suffering some sort of Anxiety! For her to refuse the medication, my thoughts are that she is not suffering any OCD at all. She understands that to take the medication for Anxiety which she may/may not have, could infact do her more harm than good? Good if she is indeed suffering from Anxiety and bad if it's all in her head! Am I making sense?

I'm sorry I couldn't of been of any help, but if I was in your shoes I too would be concerned for her if she is going to live in a different country!

What would happen if, and god forbid it, she & her boyfriend had a argument or split up, and she went to being like she is now without him, and she is in a different country? She won't have no-one to look after her like you are doing now!

I really don't know what I'd do? I really sympathize with you. Take care!

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Hey there,

I am by no means an expert, but I have lived with and studied anxiety and all of its forms for quite some time now. Here's my theory. Her boyfriend is her "safe person". By that I mean, he has become her parasympathetic nervous system. Here's a brief rundown of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and how they relate to anxiety:

Sympathetic Nervous System- This system is the part of your flight or fight response that gets your body ready to run away from danger, or to fight it, by pumping adrenaline into your bloodstream ( among many other things ) in order to give you the strength to defend yourself when you are in danger.

Parasympathetic Nervous System- This part of the fight or flight response calms the body down once the danger has passed.

Consider how you feel when you step into traffic and suddenly a car has run a red light and almost runs you down. Your body reacts immediately to get you out of the way; your heart races, your mind goes foggy, your breathing increases and so on. Then, once you're back on the sidewalk and safe, you take a deep breath, regain your composure and eventually calm down. That is your fight or flight response in action. Now, when someone is suffering from anxiety, that system is effectively on all the time. Your system is constantly sensing danger, and there is no calming down. How this applies to your daughter is a bit complex, but I'll give it a try. For whatever reason, she has anxiety, and therefore is always in a heightened state of emergency, her system is constantly looking for reasons why she might be in danger, but since she isn't in any immediate physical danger, the system looks for the next best thing. In her case, she's adopted being away from her boyfriend as a tangible threat to her safety, so when he's not around, she's in full danger mode, and all those little ticks and OCD activities are her body's attempt to discharge all of the adrenaline and other chemicals and bodily responses that would normally be soothed by the parasympathetic nervous system. All of this is happening without her being aware of it because she truly feels she is in danger, whether she is aware of it or not. She probably feels horribly uncomfortable when he's not around because of all the physiological symptoms that occur due to the fight or flight response. Imagine feeling like a car was about to run you over all the time, and not being able to make those urgent feelings go away. Now imagine that there was a person, or place, or object, or activity ( OCD ) that temporarily made those feelings vanish... wouldn't you cling to that person, or object, in order to feel normal?

The good news is that there are MANY ways of dealing with the physiological symptoms. It may take time, and she's going to have to want to feel "normal" for herself. You can't make her want to feel better, but you might be able to point out her OCD activities when she's not around him, and see if she recognizes there is something odd there.

An interesting website that has done me a world of good, and will open your eyes to the mystery of anxiety and OCD is paniccure.com and, no, this is not a plug for some site I created. I had nothing to do with it. I just happened to find it while researching anxiety for myself. It presents the whole of anxiety in a way that is wonderfully understandable and amusing.

I could go on for pages and pages about all that can be done for your daughter, but only you know the specifics about her upbringing and so on, so I'd recommend checking out that website and go from there.

-I hope this gives you a bit of hope. Here's a little of my personal success story. At 21 I was agoraphobic to the point that I couldn't leave my room, much less my house. Long story short, I got sick of being a prisoner of my own mind and took steps to get over it. Without medication. I went on to not only get over my panic and anxiety, but joined the Navy and navigated submarines for a living. My point being, I completely got beyond my anxiety and rejoined the land of the living!

There is hope... there is ALWAYS hope!

Good luck,


Edited by jimmyfay2
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Thank you Jimmyfay2. Your resonse makes alot of sense to me. She has always been an anxious person. When she was younger she would often say she felt "nervous" about playing basketball matches, going to school dances, using public transport etc but it never prevented her from doing things. The psychiatrist she saw described it as a "glitch" in her brain chemistry's response to stress but I think you expained it in a much more understandable way so thank you indeed.

Paula, I see what you are saying as I have often felt very frustrated over all this. That is precisely my biggest fear when she goes to Australia. We have sought medical advice and I have read around this subject but to no avail. We have never stood in the way of her relationship with her boyfriend. It was a shock to see her reaction to the separation. We live in a big expat community here where kids have to go overseas to continue their education so long distance relationships are relatively normal in her peer group. I/she were just not prepared for her reaction to the separation. Thank you for responding. It is a heartwarming to be able to share this with knowledgeable


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As a quick follow up to what I wrote yesterday, I wanted to comment on the importance and value of meditation when it comes to anxiety. Meditation, or guided imagery, or whatever you want to call it, is the cornerstone to getting over anxiety. It may seem silly at first, but the more she does it the faster she will get over her symptoms. I found a great set of "tapes" on itunes by Julie Milne. All you have to do is follow the instructions and let the body work it's magic. There is a new area of study involving the Relaxation Response which focuses on deep breathing to calm the body. To reference the flight or fight again; the parasympathetic nervous system calms the body down initially by breathing deeply. The "sigh of relief". The effects are immediate. People with anxiety tend to breathe very shallow and simply by breathing into the "belly", slowly and deeply for 10 to 15 breaths can elicit the relaxation response. Once the body starts to calm down, then you ( she ) can start to re-train her thinking. That is another major part of anxiety. Anxious people think in "what if" patterns, and they must learn to replace those thoughts with "so what". Even the sound of the sentence changes in urgency, such as: "What if I never see my boyfriend again?" becomes "So what if I never see my boyfriend again?" Again, I know that may sound simple or silly, but it works. People with anxiety aren't even aware that they are thinking that way because it's all they've ever known. You mentioned your daughter being nervous about playing basketball... that's too funny because I was exactly the same way about that sport! I would work myself up thinking "what if I miss" "what if I trip in front of all those people" "what if I make the team lose" and so on... where most people might have those thoughts, they counter them immediately with "so what if I miss at least I tried". See where I'm going with this?

I hope this helps...


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Thank you again. Now can I please ask your advice? I have tried on several occasions to suggest for her to look at various self help techniques. She just shakes her head at me (remember she is not talking at all). I did not push it as I do not want to increase her anxiety in any way. Now, do I wait until she back with her boyfriend and normal again before I suggest these techniques - she may be more accommodating and resonsive then or do I wait until she decides on her own volition to seek help?

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That's a tricky one... and one my own mother had to face. The whole family knew I was struggling and they all wanted to help. But none of them knew what to do or what to say. My Mom would leave the Bible open to certain passages, which would freak me out. My sister would tell me to snap out of it and get on with my life which did not help. My Father had his therapist scold me, really helpful there... and at one point the whole family ganged up on me. I came home from school and they were all sitting there and just let fly with what they were thinking... it was pretty harsh and did no good... at that moment at least. It wasn't until I was ready, and willing to do something for myself that all the things my family had tried, or said, sunk in. So I guess what I'm telling you is do what your heart tells you is right. A 20 year old doesn't see the world in a realistic way, nor does she want anyone to tell her what to do, especially if she doesn't recognize that she needs to make a change. All you can do is be honest with her, and yourself. She may have to go through a world of hurt before she's ready to do something for herself, but, she is the only one who can make the decision to get better. The best thing my Mother did for me was to let me stumble, but always be there to help me get up again. She couldn't understand what I was going through, but she could be understanding.

She still sends me clippings out of magazines about mental health and such, and now I love it. I even read them!

I'm sure this isn't the answer you wanted to hear, but, it's all I've got. For what it's worth, I was 20 when my family "ganged up" on me, and I was 21 when I finally decided to do some work to get over my problem. I'd been going to doctors since I was 7, but never realized I had to do the work... there was no magic pill, or magic statement that would make me well. The doctor I met when I was 21 simply laid out the truth for me and said "either you work with me, or we're wasting our time..." People tend to coddle people who have "mental problems", when what most of us really need is a dose of reality. Again, follow your heart, I can tell you truly love and care for your daughter otherwise you wouldn't have bothered logging on to this site... one day your daughter will realize all you've done for her, and she will be TRULY grateful. I know I appreciate my Mom and all she's done and still does for me more than I ever did as a kid ( I'm 39 now, don't tell anyone )... the hardships only served to strengthen our relationship.

By the way, "talking" to you about what you're going through really helps me, too, so don't hesitate to ask anything you want... and obviously, I love to type, so I'll be here whenever you need someone to vent to...

Take care...


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Guest ASchwartz

Hi Debbie,

I have read with interest your description of your daughter, her symptoms when her boy friend is away and how she seems to recover when he returns.

Of course, once he returns to her, she feels better and, thus, believes she is no longer in need of help. When he goes away, the symptoms return and, like most people, is more open to help because she is in crisis.

The danger for your daughter is that she is coming to rely on one person, her boy friend, to be her medication or cure. I agree, he is her "safe person." However, it is never possible nor is it desirable, for anyone to depend on just one person for their safety and security. She needs a social network of friends and relationships, as we all do, to help her cope with her life.

As far as medication is concerned, I do not think is has to be such a bad thing that she is refusing. I know that medication would not "cure her," but it could help.

To my mind, CBT makes perfect sense but she has to keep at it. Also, she needs further behavior modification to stop her from doing her OCD activities. I suspect that, even when the boy friend is around, she has some secret OCD symptoms.

What she needs along with CBT and behavior modification is a program to help her to begin socializing with more people rather than limiting herself. Of course, it would be best if that was part of her CBT therapy.

But, you know what?...There is nothing you can do if she refuses help. When she is ready, meaning miserable enough, she will seek help and stick with it.

How are you doing and how are you with all of this?

Can you tell us more about you???


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Once again thank you to both of you for taking the time to help out. I am truly touched and grateful.

I have spent alot of my time over the past year reading and researching to find answers to all of this and often come to partial dead ends. She seemed to be experiencing something that was not well documented or perhaps I was not collating the information correctly. Nevertheless, your responses have lifted a huge weight from me. It was an incredibly lonely experience to work through this. I have found that mental health is not a topic that people will talk freely about let alone give any advice. Unfortunatly the professionals we visited only skimmed over the issues without much satisfaction.

Now you asked me to tell you about myself - well I am a married mother of four girls ( we have been discussing the eldest), my husband is as supportive as he can be but the nature of his job takes up most of his time, I am a high school teacher working full time. As a family we have lived in London, Sydney and now Hong Kong. As an expat family I have always thought that we are a very close, supportive family,culturally aware and empathetic towards others. All this has affected us all in some way and it has made us stop to re-evaluate our relationships and values.

You asked how I was with all of this - well, most of the time logic tells me that it something that was going to happen regardless of our parenting and homelife etc. However, I have moments when I think " What have we done wrong?", "Could we have prevented this from happening?". It fills me with sadness as I have three younger daughters who have looked up to their big sister in the past. They do understand that she is "unwell" but they are also a little frightened by her behavoiur. All I want to do, as a mother, is to heal and nurture her but she is not allowing me to do any of it. I have occasions when I think that I must be a terrible mother and have let her down in some way.

I also wonder how much we really are helping her by financing her trips halfway across the world to be with her boyfriend. I had thought that if we did not pay for it and she stayed at home, her anxiety would become uncomfortable enough for her to actively seek help. Last year it just got worse and worse until she was just sitting there staring into space and her OCB took up most of her time. It pained us to see her suffering so much that we gave in and bought her a plane ticket.

I believe the message you are both giving me is to "let go" and let her face the consequences of her decisions but ensure her that we are there for her if she needs us. She may seek help in the future to overcome this but maybe she won't - there is nothing I can do to encourage it - it has to be her own decision. Is this correct?

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Guest ASchwartz

Hi Debbie,

Yes, that is what I am suggesting. In other words, your daughter is an adult. As an adult, she should be working and, if living at home, should be contributing money to the household out of her income. She can and should save money if she wishes to travel. By paying for her trips or keeping her at home without working, you may be encouraging her dependence. Now, having said this, read the next paragraph:...

Now, let me address the related issue that you bring up: Are you and your husband at fault, or did you and he cause her problems. tHE ANSWER IS NO, SHE WOULD HAVE HER PROBLEMS REGARDLESS OF WHAT YOU DID. I put this in capitals and dark letters to let you know how strongly I feel about this type of thing. I am also a parent and I know how easy it is for us parents to feel at fault when our adult children run into difficulties. However, there are thousands of factors that go into people developing problems, including phsyical make up, chance, genetics, hormones, the intricate brain, etc, etc, etc. In other words, we are not sure. Stop blaming your self. You did the best you could and so did I.

We love our children, even when they are adult, but, as much as we wish we could, we cannot live their lives for them. It is hard, but all of us parents must make the difficult decision to confront(gently) about getting a job and working and contributing to the house.

What do you and others think???


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  • 2 weeks later...

Hi Debbie,

I haven't written in a while and wanted to see how things were going. Also, Allan said pretty much what I would've said. I was thinking about it today, though, and it struck me how similar your situation is to that of a parent watching a child suffer with an addiction. I was thinking about how, with addiction, the person can't change for other people, they have to do it for themselves. I remember my mother sitting by helplessly while I was going through my terror... she would just sit with me and be as supportive as possible. I look back now and can remember the moment she stopped "pushing" and just let me be, and how in that moment I felt myself turning back toward her and "letting her back in"... I'd shut myself off completely and was wrapped up in my own darkness. I didn't talk to anyone, I'd just wander the streets with my headphones on, shutting out the world. My Mother was constantly trying to "do" something, and it turned out, all she had to do was be. Just be there, just be patient and so on... She still worries about me and checks in on me now and again. Especially since I now have 3 kids of my own! Talk about stress, right?

To wrap it up, I agree with Allan 100%. There was nothing you could've done differently as your daughter was growing up. There are so many factors playing into her anxiety... you couldn't have foreseen any of it. Speaking from experience, even if I'd grown up sheltered from all the things that can hurt you as a kid, I probably would've still had to deal with anxiety.

I hope all is well... take care


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:) Thank you - you are very kind.

My daughter is now in Australia staying at her boyfriend's parents home. She telephones occasionally and is the happy-go- lucky girl she used to be which, of course, I am really pleased about. It was heartbreaking to see her in that state and be unable to do ANYTHING about it. I watched her friends carrying on with their lives. I would dread bumping in to them if I was out as it was upsetting to see how happy they were. Sounds weird and selfish but I am sure you know what I mean.We will do as Allan suggested and leave her to get on with her life as she chooses to do so. She knows we are here for her if she ever needs us.

When you were in the depths of your anxiety when you were younger, did you realise what was truly happening to you at the time? Did it all seem OK or was it frustrating? My daughter never communicated with me at all about it - it is as though she was never "there" .

Yes, I know what stress is all about - I have another 3 teenagers at home! I was just never prepared for this sort of thing and as I said before it is not something people talk about even in today's enlightened times.

My daughter will hopefully be starting her degree course in February majoring in - would you believe - Psychology!

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