- Separation anxiety is a normal part of development from about eight months of age.
- You can help your child with separation anxiety by gently encouraging them to separate from you. This might take practice and praise.
In early childhood, crying, tantrums, and clinginess are healthy reactions to separation – separation anxiety is a normal part of development. However, it usually goes away gradually in early childhood. If your child’s separation anxiety is severe, long-lasting and interferes with your child’s life, perhaps consider seeking professional help.
Separation anxiety is when a child can’t think about anything but the present fear of separation. They may have nightmares or regular physical complaints. They may be reluctant to go to school or other places.
Separation anxiety can start at around 8 months and reach its peak in babies aged 14-18 months. It usually goes away gradually throughout early childhood.
Stranger anxiety is similar to separation anxiety. It’s when children get upset around people they don’t know. It can happen from 7-10 months and usually starts to go away after children’s first birthdays.
Many children experience anxiety when separated from their families when they first attend a preschool service or start school. It’s a normal part of development, it can sometimes even be seen as a survival tool, they believe their survival depends on not separating from their primary caregiver, being scared of strangers, which can certainly be a good thing. Children are starting to move around more at this stage. If children could crawl or walk away from their caregivers but weren’t afraid of separation or strangers, they’d get lost more easily. While separation anxiety is a normal part of development, it can become an issue if it doesn’t ease with age. It’s important to note that young children haven’t quite yet learnt the concept of time, so leaving them for only a few minutes can, to them, feel like a lengthy amount of time. Because of this, it’s best to let them know when you’re leaving.
While tears and tantrums at school drop off are common and shouldn’t raise red flags, symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder are a cause for concern. School refusal, sleep disturbance, and excessive distress, when faced with separation, can negatively affect a child’s day-to-day living.
Sometimes, 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.
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 passes without any need for medical attention. But if you have concerns, talk to your doctor.
How to ease symptoms of separation anxiety
For children with separation anxiety (note: for Separation Anxiety Disorder, consult with your doctor), there are steps provided by helpguide.org you can take to make the process of separation anxiety easier.
Leave your child with a caregiver for brief periods and short distances at first. As your child gets used to separation, you can gradually leave for longer and travel further.
Schedule separations after naps or feedings
Babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when they’re tired or hungry.
Develop a quick “goodbye” ritual
Rituals are reassuring and can be as simple as a special wave through the window or a goodbye kiss. Keep things quick, though, so you can:
Leave without a fuss
Tell your child you are leaving and that you will return, then go—don’t stall or make it a bigger deal than it is.
Follow through on promises
For your child to develop the confidence that they can handle separation, it’s important you return at the time you promised.
Have the babysitter come to your house so your child is in familiar surroundings. When your child is away from home, encourage them to bring a familiar object.
Have a consistent primary caregiver
If you hire a caregiver, try to keep them on the job long-term to avoid inconsistency in your child’s life.
Try not to give in
Reassure your child that they will be just fine—setting consistent limits will help your child’s adjustment to separation.
You can also help your child by relieving your own stress. To help your child ease their anxiety, it helps to be more centred and calm yourself. You can do this by eating healthy, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, talking about your feelings to others and practising relaxation.
Kidshealth.org. (2019). Separation Anxiety (for Parents) – KidsHealth. [online] Available at: https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/sep-anxiety.html [Accessed 9 Sep. 2019].
Psycom.net – Mental Health Treatment Resource Since 1986. (2019). Separation Anxiety in Children: Symptoms, Treatment and How to Help. [online] Available at: https://www.psycom.net/separation-anxiety-disorder-children/ [Accessed 9 Sep. 2019].
Raising Children Network. (2019). Separation anxiety in babies and children. [online] Available at: https://raisingchildren.net.au/babies/behaviour/common-concerns/separation-anxiety [Accessed 27 Aug. 2019].
Robinson, L. (2019). Separation Anxiety and Separation Anxiety Disorder – HelpGuide.org. [online] HelpGuide.org. Available at: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/separation-anxiety-and-separation-anxiety-disorder.htm [Accessed 27 Aug. 2019].