What Is Separation Anxiety?
It’s natural for your young child to feel anxious when you say goodbye. In early childhood, crying, tantrums, or clinginess—all the hallmarks of separation anxiety—are healthy reactions to separation and a normal stage of development. It can begin before a child’s first birthday and may reoccur until the age of four. While the intensity and timing of separation anxiety can vary tremendously from child to child, it’s important to remember that a little worry over leaving mom or dad is normal, even when your child is older. With understanding and the right coping strategies, your child’s fears can be relieved—and should fade completely as they get older. However, some children experience separation anxiety that doesn’t go away, even with a parent’s best efforts. These kids experience a continuation or reoccurrence of intense separation anxiety during their elementary school years or beyond. If separation anxiety is excessive enough to interfere with normal activities like school and friendships and lasts for months rather than days, it may be a sign of a larger problem: separation anxiety disorder.
Separation Anxiety In Different Age Gaps?
- Infants: Separation anxiety develops after a child gains an understanding of object permanence. Once your infant realizes you’re really gone (when you are), it may leave your little one unsettled. Although some babies display object permanence and separation anxiety as early as 4 to 5 months of age, most develop more robust separation anxiety at around 9 months. The leave-taking can be worse if your infant is hungry, tired, or not feeling well. Keep transitions short and routine if it’s a tough day.
- Toddlers: Many toddlers skip separation anxiety in infancy and start demonstrating challenges at 15 or 18 months of age. Separations are more difficult when children are hungry, tired, or sick—which is most of their toddlerhood! As children develop independence during toddlerhood, they may become even more aware of separations. Their behaviours at separations will be loud, tearful, and difficult to stop.
- Preschoolers: By the time children are 3 years of age, most clearly understand the effect their anxiety or pleas at separation have on us. It doesn’t mean they aren’t stressed, but they certainly are vying for a change. Be consistent; don’t return to the room based on a child’s plea, and certainly don’t cancel plans based on separation anxiety. Your ongoing consistency, explanations, and diligence to return when you say you will are tantamount.
What Triggers Separation Anxiety in Toddlers?
- Saying Goodbye: Toddlers are working to develop more mastery over their body (think running and self-feeding), and every new challenge that they face can cause stress. As a result, they feel conflicted about being away from the security of their parents. Toddlers need reassurance that when you leave, you’ll always come back.
- Large Gatherings: Going to a large gathering can be particularly anxiety-provoking for your toddler, who may be afraid of losing you in a crowd.
- Going to Sleep: Leaving your little one in their room at night or for a nap can inspire anxiety since these are probably the longest stretches of alone time they regularly experience.
- An overprotective parent. In some cases, separation anxiety may be the manifestation of your own stress or anxiety. Parents and children can feed one another’s anxieties.
- Change in environment. Changes in surroundings, such as a new house, school, or daycare situation, can trigger separation anxiety.
- Stress. Stressful situations like switching schools, divorce, or the loss of a loved one—including a pet—can trigger separation anxiety problems.
How To Ease Separation Anxiety?
- Create quick good-bye rituals. Rituals are reassuring and can be as simple as a special wave through the window or a goodbye kiss. Keep things quick. Even if you have to do major-league- baseball-style hand movements, hugs and kisses in the car, or provide a special blanket or toy as you leave, keep the good-bye short and sweet. If you linger, the transition time does too. So will the anxiety, but have your little one know that you’ll be back at a specific time and there is nothing to worry about.
- Schedule separations after naps or feedings. Babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when they’re tired or hungry.
- Be specific, child style. When you discuss your return, provide specifics that your little one understands. If you know you’ll be back by 3:00 pm, tell it to your child on his terms; for example, say, “I’ll be back after nap time and before afternoon snack.” Define time he can understand. Talk about your return from a business trip in terms of “nights of sleep.” Instead of saying, “I’ll be home in 3 days,” say, “I’ll be home after 3 nights of sleep.”
- Follow through on promises. For your child to develop the confidence that they can handle separation, it’s important you return at the time you promised.
- Keep familiar surroundings when possible and make new surroundings familiar. Have the sitter come to your house. When your child is away from home, encourage them to bring a familiar object.
- Have a consistent primary caregiver. If you hire a caregiver, try to keep them on the job long term to avoid inconsistency in your child’s life.
- Minimize scary television. Your child is less likely to be fearful if the shows you watch are not frightening.
- Try not to give in. Reassure your child that they will be just fine, setting consistent limits will help your child’s adjustment to separation.
- Independence after a nap. If your little one wakes up from a nap and is happily playing in their crib, don’t rush in to get them. Let your little one have the chance to experience what it feels like to be by themself and having a good time. Finding that they’re comfortable with it will boost your little one’s confidence and independence, as well as help them feel more secure on their own in the long run.
- Praise your child’s efforts. Use the smallest of accomplishments, going to bed without a fuss, a good report from school; as a reason to give your child positive reinforcement.