Separation Anxiety

Are you having trouble leaving your house, whether it’s to run errands, go to work, or have a night out on the town? Does your child cry incessantly when you leave? Does she cling desperately on to your legs when you try to say goodbye? If these things sound familiar then your child may be experiencing a little bit of separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is an entirely normal part of childhood and helps to contribute to a child’s overall sense of independence. But it can be quite exasperating when it comes to dealing with it! Here are some tips on how to help your child cope with separation anxiety.

What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety occurs when a child is afraid, scared, or upset to be separated from a loved one or caregiver. Children often experience separation anxiety when they are separated from their mother or father, or from their favorite babysitter or nanny. Separation anxiety is a very normal part of infancy and the toddler years. In fact, the majority of children between the ages of 8 months and 3 years experience some form of separation anxiety. Most children outgrow the separation anxiety phase and become very independent young children.

What are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety?
The main symptoms of separation anxiety include:

  • crying
  • agitation
  • general fussiness

These symptoms tend to get worse as you get closer to walking out the door!

Why Does Separation Anxiety Occur?
Separation anxiety occurs as a natural reaction to a child’s development of self and the concept of others. Young infants have no concept of separate identities. Your newborn baby sees you as a simple extension of herself. When you leave her room, or even just step out of her line of sight, your baby forgets that you exist at all! However, concepts of identity and object permanence begin to develop over time.

Between six and eight months, your baby will begin to realize that you do exist even when you are not standing right there in front of him. When you leave him, he will know that you have gone away to some other place. However, at this age infants are not familiar with the concept of time. Your baby knows that you have gone away, but he doesn’t know if you will ever come back! As a result, your baby will do anything to keep you from going away, including crying and fussing.

By the time your baby turns one, she becomes more independent and curious. She is eager to explore the world, but may be scared to do it on her own. When you try to leave, she fears that you won’t be there to support her, and thus will cry, cling, or fuss in order to get you to stay with her.

When Does Separation Anxiety Occur?
Separation anxiety can begin to manifest in children who are as young as six months old. Depending upon your child and how you and your partner react to separation anxiety, symptoms may continue right through preschool, or even into elementary school. However, the majority of children experience separation anxiety symptoms between the ages of 8 months and 2 and half years. Most children exhibit few signs after the age of three.

Separation anxiety may manifest during certain situations. In particular, separation anxiety often occurs at:

  • Bedtime: Children between the ages of 8 months and 18 months, tend to experience separation anxiety at bedtimes. They may cry, refuse to sleep alone, or cling to you instead of going to bed.
  • Childcare: When children, particularly toddlers, are left alone at preschool or with other care giversm, they may experience separation anxiety.
  • School: Occasionally, children can experience separation anxiety for the first few months of elementary school.

How Can You Help?
There are a few ways that you can ease your child’s separation anxiety. Follow these tips, and goodbyes will be a lot easier and maybe even a bit less tearful!

  • Watch Your Timing: When leaving your child with others, you may want to be particularly careful about the time you choose to leave. Avoid leaving when your child is hungry, stressed, or tired. Instead, try to leave after naps or after mealtimes.
  • Don’t Sneak Out! Though it may be tempting, don’t sneak out on your child just to avoid tears! When your child finds out you have left, she will only be more upset and worried. Instead, always say goodbye to your child.
  • Prepare Beforehand: Try to prepare your child beforehand if you are going to be leaving him for a period of time. Tell him where you are going and when you will be back. Also be sure to tell him what he will be doing while you are away and who will be looking after him.
  • Introduce Others: Before leaving your child with a nanny, babysitter, or teacher, make sure your child is familiar with that person. Ask your sitters to come over on another day, so that your child can get to know them. You might also try visiting daycare a couple of times before leaving your child there for a long period of time.
  • Stay Calm and Firm: Make sure that your goodbyes are calm but firm ones. The last thing your child needs is for you to be crying too! When you say goodbye, don’t hang around. Give your child a hug and kiss and leave.

When You Have Separation Anxiety
Children aren’t the only ones to get separation anxiety. Many parents are extremely reluctant to be separated from their children. You may experience feelings of panic, fear, guilt, or even anger when you have to leave your child at daycare or with a babysitter. It is important for parents to learn to deal with their own separation anxieties.

When parents display separation anxiety, it often compounds feelings of fear and anxiety in their children. Try to deal with your separation anxiety by hiring reputable caregivers. Take baby steps as well. Don’t rush off for a three-week vacation if you have never left your children alone before. Instead, start by leaving them for just fifteen minutes, and build from there.

When Is Separation Anxiety a Problem?
Separation anxiety is usually a normal part of childhood. Most children outgrow this phase and become highly independent. However, some children continue to be plagued by separation anxiety throughout their school years. Known as separation anxiety disorder, this type of anxiety can become quite serious, and needs to be addressed by a health care professional. Symptoms of a severe problem may include:

  • anxiety attacks
  • nausea and vomiting
  • nightmares
  • worries about being lost or kidnapped
  • fear of sleeping alone