Dealing with childhood separation anxiety

Posted on July 15th, 2019

Separation anxiety is part of a child’s journey to becoming independent. Here’s how to identify and deal with it effectively. By Natalie Egling

Childhood separation anxiety

As parents, we can rattle off a list of typical milestones, but few consider that when our child learns to say goodbye to Mom and Dad, it’s also a milestone – one that’s integral to his learning true independence.

At certain stages, crying, clinginess, tantrums and fear of separation from a parent or caregiver are healthy reactions, reassures counselling psychologist Michele Perkins.

“Managing childhood separation anxiety well is vital. Be careful that your child doesn’t pick up your anxiety too. Your goal is to raise independent, well-functioning adults, and this must underpin all interactions with your child,” says Angela Hutchison, parenting skills coach and founder of Parent Works.

ALSO SEE: Dos and don’ts of handling your child’s first emotional milestones

Separation anxiety in babies

  • “Around six to eight months of age, babies may develop separation anxiety. This often peaks at around nine months.
  • Symptoms range from slight upset to distress,” says Michelle. “A baby may fear that his parents won’t return when he’s out of sight. Object permanence resolves closer to one year of age when separation anxiety become less of an issue.”

Separation anxiety in toddlers

  • According to Michele, separation anxiety peaks again at around 18 months, and can take the form of tantrums and showing aggression.

Separation anxiety in older children

  • “If you’re leaving your child at daycare or school, it can be stressful if separation issues emerge,” says Michelle. “A child may even develop a stomach ache the night before, in anticipation.”

Tools for coping with separation anxiety

In babies

Object permanence, the understanding that objects still exist even if you can’t see, feel or hear them, is still developing in babies aged six to eight months. Your little one can’t understand that when you leave the room, you’re not gone forever.

Games like peekaboo and hide and seek encourage the development of object permanence. “When you have a task to do in the next room, encourage your baby to play with toys. Praise your baby for his attempts to amuse himself. Saying goodbye when leaving the room and continuing to speak to him from the other room can assure him that you’re within reach. On returning, a warm cuddle will reassure him,” explains Michele.

Childhood separation anxiety in toddlers

“For toddlers and babies, it’s important to empathise through physical actions, by holding your child close, spending time calming him, and offering words of encouragement – ones which give him a sense of what he can do,” says Angela.

Having a favourite soft toy or blanket that your little one knows is consistent whether his caregiver is around or not and can also help to ease the anxiety.

“A parent may need to examine their own guilt or anxiety at having to leave their child. Children pick up on this,” cautions Michele. Don’t prolong goodbyes. “A child may get the message that there really is something to worry about when they see anxiety in their parent.”

ALSO SEE: Toddler separation anxiety at night

In older children

“We tend to pretend that the anxiety doesn’t exist,” says Angela. A more helpful approach would be to say: “You really don’t like it when Mom leaves. It makes you feel scared. As hard as it is, I know you can do it, because you’ve done it before.”

When reunited, talk to your child, ask him how his day went, and reaffirm his ability to cope. “Tell him stories of when he did manage – not your perception of the experience, but only parts of the day that he has told you,” says Angela.

ALSO SEE: Ages and stages of separation anxiety

When it’s more serious

“Separation Anxiety Disorder is a psychological condition characterised by excessive anxiety in children at the thought of separation from their caregivers or home, and causes more distress than would typically be expected,” says Michelle.

The symptoms usually appear during the preschool years, after a significant stressor, such as moving schools or home, or after a death, and can last up to a month.

Signs

  • Look out for nightmares, refusing to sleep alone, headaches and stomach aches.
  • Children may also fear harm befalling themselves or their parents during the separation, and may refuse to go to school or a child minder.

Your child may not display all the symptoms of childhood separation anxiety disorder, but if they persist, a psychologist with an interest in working with these issues, is recommended.

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