Understanding and Managing Separation Anxiety in Children
Tearful, tantrum-filled goodbyes are common during a child’s earliest years. Around the first birthday, many kids develop separation anxiety, getting upset when a parent, grandparent, or other primary caregiver tries to leave them with someone else.
Though separation anxiety is a perfectly normal part of childhood development, it can be unsettling.
Understanding what your child is going through and having a few ways to cope ready can help both of you get through it.
About Separation Anxiety
Babies adapt pretty well to other caregivers. Parents probably feel more anxiety about being separated than infants do! As long as their needs are being met, most babies younger than 6 months adjust easily to other people.
Between 4–7 months of age, babies develop a sense of “object permanence.” They’re realizing that things and people exist even when they’re out of sight. Babies learn that when they can’t see their caregiver, that means they’ve gone away. They don’t understand the concept of time, so they don’t know that this person will come back, and can become upset by their absence. For example, whether the caregiver is in the kitchen, in the next bedroom, or at the office, it’s all the same to the baby, who might cry until mom is nearby again.
Kids between 8 months and 1 year old are growing into more independent toddlers, yet are even more uncertain about being separated from a parent. This is when separation anxiety develops, and children may become agitated and upset when a parent tries to leave.
Whether you need to go into the next room for just a few seconds, leave your child with a sitter for the evening, or drop off your child at daycare, your child might now react by crying, clinging to you, and resisting attention from others.
The timing of separation anxiety can vary. Some kids might go through it later, between 18 months and 2½ years of age. Some never experience it. And for others, certain life stresses can trigger feelings of anxiety about being separated from a parent: a new childcare situation or caregiver, a new sibling, moving to a new place, or tension at home.
How Long Does It Last?
How long separation anxiety lasts can vary, depending on the child and how family members respond. In some cases, depending on a child’s temperament, separation anxiety can last from infancy through the elementary school years.
Separation anxiety that affects an older child’s normal activities can be a sign of a deeper anxiety disorder. If separation anxiety appears out of the blue in an older child, there might be another problem, like bullying or abuse.
Separation anxiety is different from the normal feelings older kids have when they don’t want a parent to leave (which can usually be overcome if a child is distracted enough). And older kids do understand that their behavior can affect parents. If you run back into the room every time your child cries or cancel your plans, your child will continue to use this tactic to avoid separation.
What You Might Feel
Separation anxiety might have you feeling a variety of emotions. It can be nice to feel that your child is finally as attached to you as you are to them. But you’re also likely to feel guilty about taking time out for yourself, leaving your child with another caregiver, or going to work. And you may start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of attention your child seems to need from you.
Keep in mind that your little one’s unwillingness to leave you is a good sign that healthy attachments have developed between the two of you. Eventually, your child will be able to remember that you always return after you leave, and that will be comfort enough while you’re gone. This also gives kids a chance to develop coping skills and a little independence.
Making Goodbyes Easier
These tips can help ease kids and parents through this difficult period:
- Timing matters: Try not to start daycare or childcare with an unfamiliar person when your child is between the ages of 8 months and 1 year, when separation anxiety is first likely to appear. Also, try not to leave when your child is tired, hungry, or restless. If at all possible, schedule your departures for after naps and mealtimes.
- Practice: Practice being apart from each other, and introduce new people and places slowly. If you plan to leave your child with a relative or a new babysitter, invite that person over in advance so they can spend time together while you’re in the room. If your child is starting at a new daycare center or preschool, make a few visits there together before a full-time schedule begins. Practice leaving your child with a caregiver for short periods so that they can get used to being away from you.
- Be calm and consistent: Create an exit ritual during which you say a pleasant, loving, and firm goodbye. Stay calm and show confidence in your child. Reassure them that you’ll be back — and explain when you’ll return using concepts kids will understand (such as after lunch). Give your full attention when you say goodbye, and when you say you’re leaving, mean it; coming back will only make things worse.
- Follow through on promises: It’s important to make sure that you return when you have promised to. This is critical — this is how your child will develop the confidence that they can make it through the time apart.
As hard as it may be to leave a child who’s screaming and crying for you, it’s important to have confidence that the caregiver can handle it. By the time you get to your car, your child is likely to have calmed down and be playing with other things.
If you’re caring for another person’s child who’s having separation anxiety, try to distract the child with an activity or toy, or with songs, games, or anything else that’s fun. You may have to keep trying until something just clicks with the child.
Also, try to distract the child from thinking about missing their family, but do answer the child’s questions in a simple and straightforward way to reassure them. You might say: “Your parents are going to be back as soon as they’re done dinner. It’s OK to miss them, but let’s play with some toys!”
It’s Only Temporary
Remember, this phase will pass. If your child has never been cared for by anyone but you, is naturally shy, or has other stresses, separation anxiety may be worse than it is for other kids.
Also, trust your instincts. If your child refuses to go to a certain babysitter or daycare center or shows other signs of tensions, such as trouble sleeping or loss of appetite, there could be a problem with the childcare situation.
If intense separation anxiety lasts into preschool, elementary school, or beyond and interferes with daily activities, discuss it with your doctor. It could be a sign of a more significant concern known as separation anxiety disorder. Kids with this disorder fear being apart from their family members and are often convinced that something bad will happen. Talk with your doctor if your child has signs of this, including:
- Panic symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath) or panic attacks before a parent leaves.
- Nightmares about separation.
- Fear of sleeping alone (although this is also common in kids who don’t have separation anxiety).
- Excessive worry about being lost or kidnapped or going places without a parent.
For most kids, the anxiety of being apart from a parent or primary caregiver passes without any need for medical attention. But if you have concerns, talk to your doctor.
Separation Anxiety in Toddlers
When a parent leaves their infant or toddler, whether it’s walking out of the room for a moment or dropping them off at day care, their child is likely to experience a form of anxiety known as separation anxiety.
Toddler separation anxiety is a developmental stage that nearly all children go through. It typically starts as babies begin to master object permanence (understanding that even if they can’t see an object, it can still exist) and learn to distinguish between their parent or family member and someone they don’t know. This generally happens by around 7 months of age with a peak between 10 months and 18 months.
While separation anxiety in toddlers is a normal part of their development, it can be tough on both toddlers and their parents. That’s why it’s important to try to understand what they’re going through and find ways to help ease you both through this stage. And remember: It’s only temporary.
Signs of separation anxiety in toddlers
For most parents, the common signs of separation anxiety in toddlers are pretty easy to recognize. Separation anxiety for a 2-year-old might involve:
- Being hesitant to go somewhere without a parent.
- Clinging to a parent when they leave.
- Crying or throwing a tantrum.
- Whining or begging their parent not to leave.
- Rejecting another caregiver (such as at day care) so the parent will stay.
- Refusing to go to bed if you’re not with them.
A toddler’s separation anxiety from mom or dad might also seem worse when a stranger is present. As distressing as they can be, it’s important to remember that these are all typical signs of separation anxiety. And they’re part of the normal development that most toddlers go through.
Toddler separation anxiety triggers
While it is a normal development stage, separation anxiety in toddlers can look different from one child to the next. The differences are often based on what’s triggering the separation anxiety. For example:
- Saying goodbye to a parent.
- Going to a new day care or having a new caregiver.
- Naptime and/or bedtime.
- The arrival of a new sibling.
- Moving to a new home.
- Attending a large gathering with many unfamiliar people.
- Noticeable conflict in the home.
Some children may be more prone to separation anxiety based on their temperament. For example, babies who were generally more fussy or clingy or who had difficulty building a daily routine or dealing with change may be more prone to experience toddler separation anxiety.
But whatever their temperament, how easily a toddler is able to work through their separation anxiety often has to do with the actions their parents take to help them learn to cope with separation.
Easing toddler separation anxiety
Fortunately, there are steps parents can take to help ease their toddler’s separation anxiety, and it starts with building trust. The child must first feel secure in their own home to be able to trust new people and trust that their parents will come back when they leave. Parents can help by learning how to deal with separation anxiety in toddlers. This starts at home with:
- Cuddling and comforting them when they’re afraid.
- Allowing them to (safely) crawl or toddle into a room where they’re alone for a short time.
- Assuring them you’ll be back if you leave a room and then following through.
- Having calming bedtime rituals, with baths, story time and stuffed animals, and playing white noise or other soothing sounds to help them feel more comfortable being alone in bed.
- Soothing them when they wake up in the middle of the night (but having them remain in bed).
- Giving them time to play independently after waking from a nap, so they grow accustomed to being by themselves.
- Watching children’s TV programs and reading books that address separation anxiety with them.
When you’re leaving to go out (or leaving them with another caregiver), try to schedule it for just after naps and mealtimes when possible, as a well-rested and fed toddler will be less likely to be irritable about being separated from you. Here’s how to ease toddler separation anxiety for everyone:
- Ensure introductions to new people and places are a gradual process. This gives your toddler time to adjust. If they’re heading off to day care or preschool, try to visit a few times first so they feel more familiar with their new surroundings.
- Leave your toddler with someone they know, like a grandparent or friend for a play date, more frequently. This can help them adjust to being away from you for longer periods as they get older.
- Acknowledge your toddler’s feelings and let them know it’s OK to miss you while reassuring them you will be back.
- Develop a short, consistent goodbye routine to get your child accustomed to separating from you. It could be as simple as a goodbye kiss or a high five or leaving them with a cherished toy or blanket. The familiarity of the ritual can help your child learn to trust that you’ll be back — and feel more confident when you’re not there.
- Don’t sneak away. Say a quick goodbye, ensuring you don’t linger and drag it out as this will likely increase your child’s anxiety (as well as your own).
- Put your return time in terms your toddler will understand, like “after your naptime,” for example, or “after two sleeps” if you’re going to be gone for a weekend.
- Try to stay calm and stick to your word, returning when you promised you would — not early because you were the one feeling anxious. This is only likely to escalate your child’s anxiety.
Talking to a doctor
Even though separation anxiety in toddlers is part of normal development, parents may still worry if their child’s anxiety and response to separation is normal or if something more serious could be wrong. First, it’s important to remind yourself that separation can be frightening for any child, and they may need time and your help adjusting to it. They may also have more trouble with separation as a toddler if they’ve only ever been cared for at home and not in a day care setting, so giving them time to get used to new environments is critical.
However, it’s also important to take note of any specific instances of your child not wanting to be left with a specific person, as this could indicate an issue with that caregiving situation. Talk to your doctor if your child shows more serious signs like nausea or vomiting, loss of appetite or trouble sleeping, panic attacks or if their separation anxiety severely interferes with their daily routine. These could be a sign of separation anxiety disorder, a mental health disorder that can be treated with talk therapy and medication. It’s important to note that separation anxiety in toddlers and separation anxiety disorder (SAD), which generally occurs in children beyond toddlerhood, are not the same thing.
If your child experiences separation anxiety as a normal part of their development, there’s no need to worry it could lead to an anxiety disorder in the future, says [INSERT QUOTE FROM RADY SME].
Outgrowing separation anxiety
There’s not a set timeframe for separation anxiety in toddlers to begin or end, but most outgrow it by age 3. By this age, they’ve typically spent time apart from their parents and have a better understanding of (and more experience with) them returning. Toddlers also typically are becoming more independent at this age and open to having new adventures.
However, bouts of toddler separation anxiety can recur even after they’ve moved beyond this stage — particularly in stressful situations or unfamiliar environments, such as being hospitalized with an illness. A child’s individual separation anxiety stage also can be longer or shorter depending on how parents respond to it, so it’s important to consider tips for easing separation like the ones discussed above and take active steps to help your child feel secure and confident in being separated from you.
Get help when separation anxiety is severe
Separation anxiety in toddlers is a normal growth phase, and it’s helpful to remember that it won’t last forever. But if you’re worried your child is having trouble adjusting to being separated from you, our team is here to offer support. Contact our staff to learn more at 858-756-1700.