Separation anxiety is one of the most common challenges parents face. It can make leaving a child with a caregiver or at daycare difficult and can undermine quality of life for both the parent and child. Separation anxiety is also completely normal, especially in very young children.
Children naturally long to be close to their caregivers, and separations compromise that closeness. Managing separation anxiety requires parents to balance the child’s need to be close to them with the expectation that children will become progressively more independent as they get older.
In some children, separation anxiety persists well beyond the toddler and preschool years, affecting their ability to comfortably attend school or spend time with friends. This type of severe separation anxiety affects 4% of children and 1.6% of teenagers.
SEPARATION ANXIETY IN CHILDREN: SYMPTOMS AND WHAT’S NORMAL
Separation anxiety usually begins when a child is 6 or 7 months old, then peaks in the toddler and preschool years. Older children may have occasional bouts of separation anxiety, especially in new situations such as before going to sleepaway camp.
Separation anxiety usually begins when a child is 6 or 7 months old, then peaks in the toddler and preschool years.
Babies and young children may have symptoms such as:
- Not wanting to sleep alone
- Crying when a caregiver leaves
- Throwing tantrums to prevent a caregiver from leaving
- Being anxious about serparations
- Clinging to a parent before serparations
Older children may have additional symptoms, including:
- Lying and other behaviors to avoid going to school
- Changes in behavior as a separation approaches
- Excessive worry about a parent or other loved one
WHEN SEPARATION ANXIETY IS EXTREME: WHAT IS SEPARATION ANXIETY DISORDER?
When separation anxiety is severe and chronic, or when it interferes with daily life, it may be considered a mental health diagnosis.
Researchers do not know what causes separation anxiety disorder. Like other mental health conditions, it is likely a combination of social, biological, and psychological factors. Children with a history of trauma or abuse may be more vulnerable. Symptoms usually appear in elementary school, between third and fifth grades. They include:
- Being terrified to sleep alone
- Excessive, chronic worry about the safety of a parent
- Refusing to go to school or crying each day before school
- Nightmares about separation
- Physical complaints such as muscle pain and stomach aches
- Not wanting to be alone
- Chronic worry about getting lost
- Unusual safety concerns
- Being clingy in a way that is not age typical, such as when a 10-year-old wants to be with their parents and not their friends
- Not wanting to do fun things or spend time with friends if it means being away from home
HOW TO DEAL WITH SEPARATION ANXIETY
Separation anxiety is no one’s fault. It is not a sign that a child is spoiled or manipulative. The distress children feel is very real, though as children get older, they learn that vocal expressions of distress may stop their parents from leaving. When dealing with separation anxiety, parents should not:
- Punish children.
- Lie about separations. Sneaking out of the house after promising not to leave can erode trust.
- Say things that might trigger anxiety. If a child is showing no signs of separation anxiety, don’t reassure them or tell them how brave they are to go off on their own.
- Make goodbyes last too long. It’s natural to want to comfort a crying child, but long goodbyes and long buildups to inevitable departures may actually prolong a child’s suffering.
- Panic or look distressed. Parents love their children and do not want to see them sad. But when parents express sadness or fear about separations, this can make the child think there is real danger.
- Reward children for separations. Rewards and punishments are controversial for many reasons. Even experts who support them agree that they work best for behaviors children choose—such as cleaning up a bedroom or doing homework. Separation anxiety is an emotional reaction, not a behavioral choice.
Choosing the right care provider is also critical for reducing separation anxiety. Daycare providers, nannies, and babysitters who are sensitive to the child’s needs can help. Talk to care providers about the importance of comforting and distracting the child—not ignoring them while they cry or punishing them for becoming anxious.
Some research suggests that forming a close attachment to a loving, accessible secondary care provider can ease separation anxiety. This means that daycares that provide the same carer each day, nannies, and consistent babysitters may be better options than an ever-shifting roster of childcare providers.
Some other strategies parents can adopt to ease separations include:
- Develop a comfortable (but short) ritual for separations. Some children like to have a special blanket, sing a song, or get a set number of kisses.
- Talk to children about why they are anxious. Young children may have trouble articulating their fears, but older children can often explain them. You may find that the problem is not separation, but something else, like a mean teacher or bully at school.
- Explain departures in language children can understand. For example, you might tell a toddler that you will see them after their nap, at dinner, or in “three sleeps.”
- Be honest and keep promises. Don’t say you won’t leave, that you will only leave when the child gives permission, or that you will be back in just a minute if these things aren’t true.
- Practice separations in low-stress contexts. Try dropping a child off at grandpa’s house for an hour or inviting a beloved uncle or aunt to take them on an outing. This gets the child used to separations and can help with preparing for the transition to school.
- Don’t spend lots of time talking about the separation before it happens. This can build anxiety.
- When your departure draws near, talk about the fun things your child can do while you are gone.
- Be loving and affectionate, not distracted or frustrated, during departures.
- Develop a plan with caregivers for supporting a child with separation anxiety. Each care provider should have several strategies they can try to help calm a child who is anxious or upset. Care providers should never ignore or punish a crying child.
Separation anxiety can be difficult for both parents and children. Parents may feel stress at each separation or adjust their entire lives to reduce separations when a child has intense anxiety. This can affect an entire family, and even undermine careers. A therapist can help families manage separation anxiety in a way that minimizes trauma and honors the needs of every family member. GoodTherapy can help you find a therapist.
- Bowlby, R. (2007). Babies and toddlers in non-parental daycare can avoid stress and anxiety if they develop a lasting secondary attachment bond with one carer who is consistently accessible to them. Attachment & Human Development, 9(4), 307-319. doi: 10.1080/14616730701711516
- Ehmke, R. (n.d.). What is separation anxiety?. Retrieved from https://childmind.org/article/what-is-separation-anxiety
- Krecklow, L. L. (2018, August 28). Separation anxiety: Dos and don’ts to help your child (and you) be brave. Retrieved from https://gozen.com/separation-anxiety-dos-and-donts-to-help-your-child-and-you-be-brave
- Separation anxiety disorder in children. (n.d.). Stanford Children’s Health. Retrieved from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=separation-anxiety-disorder-90-P02582
- Swanson, W. S. (2015, November 21). How to ease your child’s separation anxiety. Retrieved from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/Pages/Soothing-Your-Childs-Separation-Anxiety.aspx
Originally published on GoodTherapy.
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