Separation anxiety happens with many kids. From infants to toddlers and beyond, learn how to deal with 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 the kid who would ‘go to anyone’?” I wondered.
Separation anxiety proved difficult for everybody. My toddler was unhappy being away from me, and other adults felt shunned despite wanting to help. Meanwhile, I felt exhausted and frustrated at being the object of his attachment.
Thankfully we were able to move beyond the phase. He was still a little bit attached, but nowhere near the anxiety he felt in the past.
How to deal with separation anxiety
But you may be struggling with your child and separation anxiety and feeling a similar mix of emotions.
You’re glad she loves you, but getting tired of always being the one to do everything for her. Your partner might feel rejected, and your days are all but smooth and peaceful.
That’s why I’m excited to welcome Kim Peterson, MA, a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor and Registered Play Therapist. Kim sat down with me for a Q&A to share with us exactly how to deal with separation anxiety:
“What exactly is separation anxiety?”
Separation anxiety is anxiety children experience when they’re separated from a primary caregiver. For instance, your child becomes upset when you begin to leave the room or hand her off to someone else. She 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.
As an infant, my son easily went to other people with no problem. But at 10 months old, he’d cry when I left the room and looked at me with distressed eyes. I felt guilty and worried, although I had no reason to feel that way.
“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, while for others it may be around 24 months, or anywhere between.
Your child may even experience separation anxiety at many stages of development (for instance, going to school). On the other hand, she may never show anxiety about a parent leaving, either.
“Why does separation anxiety happen?”
Babies develop object permanence around five to seven 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’re around.
Transitions or stressful events can also bring separation anxiety, like starting preschool or welcoming a new sibling in the home.
“How can parents ease a child’s anxiety and help him or her feel comfortable without the parent?”
- Maintain as much normalcy and consistency to your child’s routine, providers, diet, and environment. This is especially important if there has been a significant change in her 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 her that she has nothing to worry about.
- You don’t want to prolong your departure, but be sure you tell her good-bye. Sneaking out can be confusing, and it’s good for her to see you leave calmly and confidently.
- Acknowledge her feelings. Reassure her that what she’s experiencing is normal. Offer her a loving gesture, even if it’s brief. “I can see you’re sad and don’t want mommy to leave. I have to go, but I’ll see you when I come home from work today.”
Free resource: As frustrating as her behavior may be, a lot of it can be prevented by seeing things from her perspective. In The Power of Empathy, you’ll learn how empathy is the secret key that makes a huge difference in how we interact with our kids.
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“Is there a way to prevent or prepare for separation anxiety?”
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 your child for any upcoming changes by talking, reading books, and drawing pictures. Let her know what to expect.
- Allow her to spend time with other adults, especially relatives and caregivers. I recommend starting this around five to six months.
- Allow her to meet new teachers and visit new classrooms before she’ll be dropped off. This helps her have a visual of what she’ll 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 isn’t 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.
As a therapist, I consider several factors to determine if there may be something more than a “normal” phase of separation anxiety:
- The behaviors have lasted six weeks or more.
- Physical problems—like severe diarrhea, ulcers in the mouth, and headaches—have manifested as a result.
- The child is expressing extreme emotional reactions—such as vomiting or severe tantrums—over the event and isn’t responding to developmentally appropriate soothing techniques.
- Odd or unusual behaviors accompany the separation anxiety, such as hair pulling or head-banging.
- The anxiety has become worse over time.
- The separation anxiety is interfering with daily functioning. For instance, a parent is unable leave the house or the child is distressed for most of their day or night.
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 nearby, and was fearful and anxious for most of the day.
This is an example of extreme separation anxiety.
Hopefully this Q&A with Kim has shed some light on this confusing and frustrating behavior in your child. As we learned, separation anxiety is anxiety children feel when they’re separated from a primary caregiver. It can happen as early as eight months all through different developmental stages.
Separation anxiety happens when babies develop object permanence, or when toddlers have developed a strong attachment to you. While you can’t prevent it from happening, you can take steps to ease the length and severity of the stage.
And of course, if you feel that your child’s behavior is beyond “normal,” it’s always a good idea to talk to your pediatrician. This is especially important if she has gone through a sudden change in her life.
Thankfully, for most of us, separation anxiety is a normal phase our kids go through. A good reminder for those days when your child wants you… and only you.
Get more tips:
- How to Deal when Your Child Cries at Drop Off
- 9 Useful Techniques for Dealing with Anxiety in Young Children
- Children’s Books about Separation Anxiety
- What to Do When Your Child Is Scared at Extracurricular Activities
- How to Entertain a Baby
Don’t forget: Join my newsletter and grab The Power of Empathy below—at no cost to you: