Separation anxiety is developmentally normal and appropriate. It lessens when children grow older, as they grow in confidence. A child who feels safe learns to trust people other than her own parents, and comes to understand that when her parents leave, they will return. However, when your child is under stress, she may begin to express anxiety again. These stressful situations could include an illness in the family, you travelling for work, or the family moving house.
Around eight months
In early infancy, your baby has no sense of herself as separate from you. Around eight months, separation anxiety often sets in. Your baby is more conscious of her surroundings. While familiar people and places are comforting, new people and strange places can feel threatening. “She realises that mom and dad exist as separate from her,” says Claudia Abelheim, an educational psychologist at the Family Life Centre in Parkwood, Johannesburg. “At this cognitive stage, babies are aware when you go away, but they don’t know that you are coming back. This stage of separation anxiety may last a few months, but it is normal and, in fact, good. In the process of separation, they feel uncomfortable but they learn how to deal with it. They develop self-soothing and resilience.”
- Before six months, get her used to being with other trusted caregivers, such as a loving nanny or grandparent. The experience of being temporarily left with responsible, loving people for short periods may lessen separation anxiety.
- Continue to create a loving, secure environment with plenty of physical affection.
- Separation is as hard for parents as it is for children, but it doesn’t help if you are also too.
The toddler years
In toddler years, separation anxiety peaks again, says Claudia. “Toddlers are very attached to their parents and don’t want to be away from them, although they do understand that their parents will come back. They also understand that they can throw a tantrum and that this might get the parent to stay. Again, it’s a normal part of their development.”
Parents of toddlers are sometimes driven mad by their kids’ love of the word ‘no’, but saying no is an important part of development, and an early sign of individuation. The child is indicating that she is separate from you and that sometimes she wants something different from what you want.
- Don’t minimise her feelings with responses such as, “Be a big girl” or “Don’t be silly”.
- Have a little ritual for goodbyes – a wave, a high five, or a little saying like “See you later, alligator”.
- Keep transitions quick. Hanging around for long hugs and extended explanations will make the moment of separation harder for everyone. Give your child your full attention, a quick hug and goodbye, and then move on quickly. Make sure that you show confidence and a cheerful demeanor to prevent anxiety.
Your child, who has been separating quite happily and enjoying growing independence, might surprise you with a resurgence of clingy, tearful, fearful behaviour when you separate. This is often related to a new stress in your child’s life, or some change in routine – a baby sibling is arriving and she’s worried about her place in your heart, or she is starting school and is suddenly being left with a lot of unfamiliar kids. The good news is that separation worries usually pass quite quickly at this age, as your child gets used to the new circumstances.
- Let her know that you understand she’s nervous, that her feelings are normal and OK, and that things will get easier.
- When you leave, explain, in child-friendly terms, when you will be back. She won’t understand “in two hours”, but she will understand “after your nap”.
- Make sure you have alone time together. It’s not always easy, particularly if there’s a new baby in the house, but one-on-one time with your child builds her security and confidence in your love for her.
- Stick to your routines. Having predictable routines and structure in her life will help her feel more secure and send the message that everything is normal and fine. Hunger and tiredness are likely to exacerbate separation issues.