Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Children

It’s very common for young children to become attached to their parents. In fact, separation anxiety in children is actually a natural part of development. It’s a stage that can be just as difficult for the parent as the child to cope with, but in time this phase will pass.

separation anxiety

Some children experience separation anxiety before they reach the age of 1 while others may experience it later. Crying, screaming, or clinginess when a parent leaves are typical indications. It can occur simply when you leave the room your baby is in. Not to worry, mom. This normal behavior usually fades in children by the time they reach 4. We know how stressful this can be in the meantime, so here are some helpful tips to make it easier for both you and child to cope.

Ease into Separation Periods
For moms who stay home with the kids, it is much more common for children to experience anxiety any time you’re not around. Start practicing separation early by leaving your baby alone with a trustworthy caregiver for brief periods at a time. If you will be returning to work or your child will soon be placed in a child care setting, start doing this in advance to help prepare them for the transition. The best time to do this is after nap time or snack as children that are tired or hungry may be more susceptible.

Try not to leave while your child is sleeping. This may not always be helped, but if you’re planning a date night do not choose to wait until your child goes to bed to leave, thinking it will be easier. This can actually become more stressful if your child awakens and suddenly mom and dad are not there. Doing this could actually result in your child refusing to go to sleep out of fear of waking up and you’re gone.

Try to Establish a Familiar Environment
If your baby will be left with a sitter, try having them come over and watch them in your home at first. Maybe start with the first two visits accompanying them before leaving them by themselves with someone they’re not familiar with. When leaving them with someone in a new surrounding, bring some of their favorite items they’re familiar with. Also try to stay consistent with the same caregiver if hiring one. It helps to get to know them well first so you aren’t constantly introducing your child to new caregivers in the event that you are not completely happy with them.

Establish a Goodbye Routine
Same as you would when putting little ones down for bed, it helps to establish a separation routine when leaving your child. Something along the lines of a goodbye hug and kiss or wave goodbye can be reassuring. Keep it brief. The longer you drag out goodbyes the harder it will be for you to leave. Don’t try to be sneaky by leaving when they aren’t looking as this can make it even more stressful for them.

Provide Reassurance
If your child is having a difficult time, reassure them that you will be back soon and they’ll be fine. Have some fun games or activities for your sitter to play with your child to keep them distracted. Most importantly is not to give in. I know it’s hard to see your child crying for you when you have to leave, but going back to them will make it worse. Refrain from saying things like ‘Mommy doesn’t want to leave you but I have to’ as young children don’t understand this concept. Try to remain calm during the separation because children can pick up on your anxiety, making it harder on them. Most children stop crying within a few minutes after you’ve left.

In some cases, children may develop separation anxiety disorder, in which they don’t outgrow it. This is a more serious emotional condition that can lead to problems. If your child appears to be having severe anxiety when they are separated from you, you may need to take further actions. Indications include:

  • Severe distress upon separation that interferes with normal activity (i.e. crying for hours and refusing to engage in activities with the caregiver)
  • Separation anxiety once in school (past the age of 4)
  • Refusing to go to school/daycare
  • Complaining of sickness like headache right before separating to avoid leaving
  • Clinging to you all the time even when going to another room in the house
  • Suddenly becomes distressed upon separation, out of the blue

It can be difficult to tell if  separation anxiety in children is just normal behavior or an emotional disorder. The main difference is the intensity of their anxiety. In most cases, children will start to ease into separation and become used to the idea without throwing a tantrum or crying within a couple of weeks. If you notice it’s not getting better or becomes worse after a few weeks it could be a problem.

This can often occur during times of change like a recent move, stress from losing someone or even a pet, or as a result of an overprotective parent. Try talking to your child and easing their fears. Reassure them that they will be safe. Stick to a consistent routine as much as possible and set limits with rules about behavior. Also avoid letting your child watch scary movies or even drama television shows that could be frightening. If your child’s anxiety is getting in the way of activities like going to school, engaging with friends or constant fear of leaving you may need to seek help from a professional. Sometimes an underlying condition or traumatic experience could be the problem. Talk to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns or seek the advice of a specialist.

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