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Separation Anxiety

What are the signs my child is experiencing separation anxiety?

  • Typical behaviour during separation anxiety is crying, clinging and wanting to be held all the time.
  • Some children may withdraw from, or ignore a parent while others may become aggressive or throw a temper tantrum.

Why children feel separation anxiety

Young children:

  • Separation is an important developmental task of young children. Separation anxiety can start as young as eight months of age and usually peaks between one and two years of age.
  • Are learning they are separate and independent from parents.
  • Now realize that when they can’t see you, you’ve gone away from them.
  • Have minimal sense of time. When you leave them, they have difficulty knowing when, or if, you will come back.
  • Are learning to predict what will happen next based on their past experiences. They can predict that when you put on your coat and shoes after breakfast you are going to leave and they will be without you. This is upsetting and unsettling for them, creating anxiety and fear.

Keep in mind:

  • Children differ in their reaction to separation and may experience separation anxiety at different times.
  • By the time children become preschoolers they usually are coping well with separating from you. They have had more experience with saying good-bye; they have developed a trusting relationship with you and are able to remember that even though you are not with them right now you will return.
  • During times of change, increased stress or anxiety, children may show more intense reactions to separation. In some cases, children who have previously been comfortable with separation may suddenly start crying and clinging when you leave. This is normal. Being sensitive to your child’s feelings and working to provide reassurances for them will help the transition.
  • Separation can be more difficult for children with sensitive temperaments.

How can you help your child cope with separation anxiety?

You may feel guilty about leaving your child, or worried about how your child will cope without you. Most parents will feel torn leaving a crying child who is begging the parents not to go. How you act and feel as a parent during this period makes a big difference in how your child separates from you. Separation is inevitable and it is a skill to be learned to allow your child to grow and go forward confidently in the world. (12 Steps to Help your Child Separate from you)

  • From infancy, help your child develop trusting relationships with friends and other family members. Allow your child to spend time with others in familiar places.
  • Praise your child when they interact positively with others.
  • Start gradually. Let your child visit your caregiver with you a few times. Then have your child stay with the caregiver for short periods of time alone before starting the regular schedule.
  • Develop as regular a routine as possible when leaving your child. Try to make the drop-off and pickup times consistent and maintain a regular routine at home prior to leaving.
  • Briefly help your child get set up in an activity. Assist your child to take part in something fun on her own or with others. Praise her for participating in an activity.
  • Always say goodbye. Let your child know you are leaving now and you will always return. Tell your child when you will return in concrete ways she can understand. “Mommy is going to work now; I will pick you up after your nap.”
  • Develop a regular goodbye ritual that is comforting for your child. Blowing kisses, tickling tummies, waving bye-bye or singing a goodbye song can be reassuring for your child during separation.
  • Show confidence. Tell your child he will be okay, he can handle this and he will have fun. Link to the next time you will be together “When we get home tonight, we will play at the park before dinner”
  • Leave a special small object with your child that reminds her of you or home.
  • When you leave, exit quickly and without hesitation. Goodbyes are easier if the parent is decisive and calm.
  • Keep consistent caregivers. Avoid changing caregivers unless absolutely necessary. Your child needs to develop a sense of trust and predictability.
  • Give your child extra attention if your child is feeling more vulnerable because of a new sibling at home or a change in caregiver, while still maintaining the routine of separating.

What if separation anxiety persists?

  • It is important to listen to your child’s indicators of their happiness with their caregiver. Trust your instincts. If your child is unhappy and upset all day with the caregiver or refuses to go to a certain babysitter or child care centre, it may be time to re-evaluate the childcare situation.
  • If they are showing other signs of stress like difficulty sleeping or loss of appetite, again it might be time to re-evaluate the situation.
  • If your child’s separation anxiety is lasting into preschool or elementary school, you should discuss this with your pediatrician or family doctor.

Additional resources

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