Separation Anxiety in Children: Normal or Not?

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is an all-too-common experience for toddler parents. During this developmental stage, children may protest separation by crying, screaming, clinging, and throwing temper tantrums. Children may experience separation anxiety when you leave them with another parent, caretaker, or even walk into a different room. While almost every child experiences this stage, it can be stressful for parents when it happens. 

When can I expect my child to develop separation anxiety?

Newborns tend to adapt easily to different caregivers and are unlikely to display separation anxiety. Between 4 and 7 months old, babies develop “object permanence,” which means that they learn that other people continue to exist even when they can’t be seen. When a parent goes away, a baby this age starts to realize that the parent left. Because they can’t yet understand when the parent will return, the baby becomes overwhelmed with emotion. 

Separation anxiety typically starts around 7 to 10 months and peaks at 18 months. It gradually subsides as children approach 3 years old and learn to cope with separation. These timelines may vary though, as every child is different. 

Some children may be more likely to have separation anxiety when dealing with stressful life events, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, moving into a new home, a change in caregivers or daycare, or the birth of a new sibling. 

Separation anxiety typically begins around 7 months and gradually subsides by 3 years old.

Is separation anxiety normal?

Separation anxiety is normal and healthy in babies and toddlers. Most children gradually stop showing signs of it as they approach three years old. 

While many children stop showing signs of separation anxiety as they enter preschool, some children continue to struggle. They may develop signs of separation anxiety disorder (SAD), which involves higher than normal levels of separation anxiety. In order to be diagnosed with SAD, children must show at least 3 of the following signs:

  • High levels of distress when away from home or caretakers.
  • Excessive worry that a caretaker will be harmed or die. 
  • Excessive worry that a major event will cause separation from a caretaker (such as being kidnapped).
  • Refusal to go to school or other places that require separation.
  • Fear of being alone. 
  • Refusal to go to sleep without a caretaker nearby.
  • Chronic nightmares about being separated. 
  • Physical symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches, when separated or expecting to be separated from a caretaker. 

In order to be diagnosed with SAD, children must show signs of the disorder for at least 4 weeks. If you think your child may have SAD, consider talking with your child’s pediatrician or having them evaluated by a mental health professional

How can I make separation easier?

Consider some of the following tips to help you and your child cope with goodbyes:

  • Arrange separations when your child is in a good mood. When possible, avoid leaving your child with another caretaker when they are hungry, angry, or tired. Your child is more likely to cope with the goodbye when they are feeling their best. 
  • Ease your child into new caretakers. If your child is going to be meeting a new babysitter, nanny, or caretaker, introduce them slowly. Try to have them interact with your child a few times while you are present. Make sure your child sees you interacting positively with them as well. 
  • Tell your child what to expect. Whether or not your child is speaking yet, give them a rundown of what to expect when you’re gone. For example, “Grandma will be coming over to spend the afternoon with you. Mommy will be going to the store and will be back by dinner time.” Try your best to stick to any promises you make to return at a certain time. This teaches your child that even though you sometimes have to leave, they can count on you to return. 
  • Say goodbye before you go. It can be tempting to sneak away when your child is distracted, but this can be confusing for children as they get older. Instead, give your child a rundown of the plan along with a big kiss and goodbye. Even though they may cry, telling them when you leave helps build trust. 
  • Give your child a big hello upon return. Communicate how much you missed your child by giving them a warm welcome, hug, and kiss. 

Tips for coping with separation anxiety

Separation anxiety is not only difficult for your child, but also for you as a parent. You may find yourself feeling guilty, sad, angry, and concerned as you see your child struggle. Utilizing the following tips can help alleviate some of the stress of this stage:

  • Remember that it is temporary. In most cases separation anxiety is a finite stage that ends before preschool. Keeping this in mind when you feel overwhelmed can help you deal with the challenging moments.
  • Acknowledge your feelings. This stage can be hard and arouse lots of different emotions in you. You may find yourself feeling guilty or overwhelmed when you have to go to work or take some time for yourself. These feelings are all normal.
  • Ask for help. Because this stage can be so stressful, it is important to ask for support when you need it. Speaking with loved ones or other parents who have been through this stage can give you a chance to vent and get advice.
Understanding separation and supporting your child’s ability to cope will help them progress through this stage. 

When is it time to seek help?

If your child’s separation anxiety continues past preschool, it may be a sign of separation anxiety disorder (SAD), rather than a developmental stage. SAD interferes with a child’s ability to function. For example, children with SAD may refuse to go to school, have play-dates, or spend time with any caretakers other than their parents. 

If you suspect that your child has SAD, talk with your child’s pediatrician. They will be able to assess the severity of the separation anxiety and work with you on finding appropriate treatment, if necessary. 

Sources:

Bowlby, J. (1960). Separation anxiety. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 41, 89-113.

Ehrenreich, J. T., Santucci, L. C., & Weiner, C. L. (2008). Separation anxiety disorder in youth: Phenomenology, assessment, and treatment. Psicologia Conductual, 16(3), 389-412.

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