How to Deal with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety happens with many kids. From infants to toddlers and beyond, learn how to deal with separation anxiety in children.

How to Deal with Separation AnxietyMy 18 month old 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 others felt shunned despite wanting to help. Getting a babysitter to care for him felt impossible. 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.

But you may be struggling with your child’s separation anxiety and feeling a similar mix of emotions.

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 cause worry in 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.

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“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 can 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 might return. It’s around this stage that we start noticing separation anxiety.

With older kids, your child has already developed a sense of attachment to you and realizes you’ll likely return after leaving. But being away from you is upsetting, and he’s most comfortable and happy when you’re around.

Transitions or stressful events can also trigger separation anxiety, like starting preschool or welcoming a new sibling into the home.

“How can parents ease a child’s anxiety and help him or her feel comfortable?”

  • Maintain as much normalcy and consistency to your child’s routine, childcare 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 goodbye. Show her that she has nothing to worry about.
  • Be sure you tell her goodbye. You don’t want to prolong your departure, but sneaking out can be confusing. Plus, it’s good for her to see you leave calmly and confidently. Give her a quick kiss and hug and leave 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.”

Learn how to handle a clingy toddler.

Clingy Toddler

“Is there a way to prevent or prepare for separation anxiety?”

We don’t have a way to prevent separation anxiety, but you can do a few things to ease the length or severity:

  • Prepare your child for any upcoming changes by talking about them, reading books, and drawing pictures. Let her know what to expect and talk about the reluctance she feels.
  • Allow her to spend short periods of time with other adults, especially relatives and regular babysitters. I recommend starting this around five to six months.
  • Allow her to meet new teachers and visit new classrooms before drop off. This helps her have a visual of what she might experience and can mentally prepare for it.
  • Establish a routine and as much consistency as possible.

“If a parent is concerned the separation anxiety seems extreme or lasts too long, when should she seek help from a professional?”

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 child’s symptoms and behaviors have lasted six weeks or more.
  • Physical symptoms—like severe diarrhea, nausea, stomachaches, ulcers in the mouth, and headaches—have manifested as a result.
  • The child is expressing extreme emotional reactions—such as vomiting, panic attacks, or severe temper tantrums—and isn’t responding to developmentally appropriate soothing techniques.
  • Odd or unusual behaviors accompany separation anxiety, such as hair pulling or head-banging.
  • The anxiety and excessive distress have become worse over time.
  • The separation anxiety is interfering with daily functioning. For instance, a parent is unable to leave the house or the child is distressed for most of the day or night.

I treated one preschool child who developed separation anxiety after the sudden death of a family member.

The traumatic events meant she would cry when mom walked into another room for a short period of time. She refused to sleep in her own room at bedtime or take a bath without her mom nearby and was fearful and anxious for most of the day. This is an example of extreme separation anxiety and distress.


Hopefully, this Q&A with Kim has shed some light on this confusing and frustrating behavior in your child and how to cope with it.

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. Though common and often temporary, this can still affect a family’s quality of life.

Separation anxiety can happen when your baby learns object permanence or when your toddler has 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.

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  1. My biggest struggle right now is dealing with a 2.5 year old toddler who is very clingy to mommy and often wants nothing to do with me when we are both present. No Daddy putting on her clothes or brushing her hair, only Mommy can do it. When Mom is not around, this generally isn’t an issue. She was gone last weekend and I had very few issues and the weekend went great. Now that Mom is here again, it’s back to “Go away daddy” and me not being able to do everyday things. If I try, it ends with huge tantrums. I keep reading that this is a normal phase, but it’s very difficult not to take this to heart and feel like a failure of a parent. Any words of wisdom are appreciated!

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      It’s definitely tough on everyone when our kids have a preference for one parent. Rest assured that it has nothing to do with who you are as a parent or her affection for you.

      One thing I’ve found to help is to hold your ground when she insists that mom does everything for her. Even if she throws a fit, calmly explain that mommy is busy washing the dishes, so daddy is going to give her dinner, or that tonight it’s daddy’s turn to bathe and tuck her in. If you relent and have mom do those tasks in the end, she learns that eventually, she’ll find a way to get mom to do things for her. More importantly, she might get the mistaken impression that dad can’t do the job or that mom is the one who’s supposed to do it after all.

      Hang in there, Justin! I also believe it’s a phase, and the best parents can do is to be there for her in a calm and compassionate way while at the same time not relenting to her demands.