Separation anxiety happens with many kids. From infants to toddlers and beyond, here’s what you should know about separation anxiety in children.
My then 18-month-old son wanted to be with me… and only me. Little that his dad or caregiver did could pry him away from me without tears. “Where’s that kid who would ‘go to anyone’?” I wondered.
Separation anxiety proved difficult for everybody. My toddler was unhappy being away from me. Other adults felt shunned despite wanting to help. And I felt exhausted and frustrated at being the object of his attachment.
Thankfully we were able to move beyond the phase. While the little guy can still be attached to me, he’s nowhere near the anxiety he felt in the past.
But you may be struggling with your kids and separation anxiety. That’s why I’m excited to welcome Kim Peterson, MA, a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor and Registered Play Therapist. Kim sat down with us for a Q&A to explain everything about separation anxiety.
What you should know about separation anxiety in children
What exactly is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is anxiety children experience when they’re separated from a primary caregiver. They become upset when the parent begins to leave the room or hands them off to someone else. They may try to clamor back into your arms or cling to your legs.
Separation anxiety is a normal part of development and happens with most children. Still, it can worry many parents because it happens so quickly.
When my son was 10 months old, he went to other people with no problem. Then he cried when I left the room and looked at me with distressed eyes. I felt guilty and worried, although I had no reason to worry.
Is there a specific age where separation anxiety begins, peaks and ends?
Every baby and child is different. Some experience separation anxiety around 8 months. For others it may be around 24 months, or anywhere between. Your child may even experience separation anxiety at many stages of development. Or they may never show anxiety about a parent leaving.
Why does separation anxiety happen?
Babies develop object permanence around 5-7 months. This means they realize that objects (and people) exist even if they can’t see them anymore.
When mom goes to another room, the baby knows mom still exists, but isn’t confident if or when she’ll return. It’s around this stage of development that we start noticing separation anxiety.
At the toddler stage, your little one has likely developed a sense of attachment to you. She realizes you’ll return after leaving, but being away from you is upsetting. She’s most comfortable and happy when you are around.
Transitions or stressful events can also bring separation anxiety. Things like beginning a childcare program or a new sibling in the home.
How can parents ease the child’s anxiety and help him or her feel comfortable without the parent?
- Maintain as much normalcy and consistency to the child’s routine, providers, diet, and environment. This is especially important if there has been a significant change in their life, such as a new sibling.
- Try your best not to express your own worry or angst about leaving when it’s time to say good-bye. Show them they have nothing to fear.
- You don’t want to prolong your departure, but be sure you tell them good-bye. Sneaking out can be confusing and it’s good for them to see they have nothing to worry about.
- Acknowledge their feelings. “Riley, I can see you are sad and don’t want mommy to leave. I have to go, but I will see you when I get off work today.” Reassure your child that what they’re experiencing is normal. Offer them a loving gesture, even if it’s brief.
Is there a way to prevent separation anxiety, or a way to better prepare for it?
We don’t have a way to prevent separation anxiety, but a few things you can do to ease the length or severity include:
- Prepare them for any upcoming changes by talking, reading books, and drawing pictures. Let them know what to expect.
- Allow babies and toddlers to spend time with other adults, especially relatives and caregivers. I recommend starting this around 5-6 months.
- Allow the child to meet new teachers and visit new classrooms before they will be dropped off. This helps them have a visual of what they will experience and mentally prepare.
- Establish a routine and as much consistency as possible.
Let’s say a parent is concerned the separation anxiety seems extreme or lasts too long. When should she seek help from a professional?
With every stage in a child’s development, “normal” behaviors can seem to go too far. If you have a feeling something is not right, talk to your pediatrician or child therapist. As a parent, you’re the expert on your child. If something is out of the ordinary, get more information to ease that nagging feeling in the back of your mind.
I treated one preschool child who developed separation anxiety after the sudden death of a family member. The child cried when mom walked into another room. She refused to sleep in her own bed or take a bath without mom near, and was fearful and anxious for most of the day. This is an example of extreme separation anxiety.
What resources can you recommend?
Here are some fabulous books to read with kids. Use these to prepare your child for separation or to help ease their separation anxiety.
Thank you, Kim for shedding some light on this confusing and frustrating behavior in our kids. To learn more about Kim’s background and practice, visit her site, Kim’s Counseling Corner.
Get more tips about separation anxiety:
- How to Deal when Your Child Cries at Drop Off
- 9 Useful Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety in Young Children
- 10 Children’s Books about Separation Anxieties
- Extracurricular Activities: My Child Freaks Out and Clings Onto Me
- What to Do when Your Baby Needs to Be Entertained Constantly
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