Understanding Separation Anxiety

Does your little one cry or cling to you as you're leaving the room or heading out the door? Your toddler may be experiencing separation anxiety. At this age, your child doesn't have a strong sense of time, so he doesn't know when you'll return. Young children form tight relationships with their parents, so it's natural that as a child grows, she'll be hesitant to let go of feelings of familiarity and security. Rest assured separation anxiety is a normal phase that many children go through as they age.

Children may begin to cry and scream as well as become very clingy when faced with their loved one leaving them with individuals with whom the child is not familiar. The child may physically lash out at the caregiver to try to persuade the parent to stay. Separation anxiety can even strike when the parent is still in the home but is simply in another room or when the child is put down to sleep. However, the behaviours associated with separation anxiety usually begin to die down once the parent has left the area and is out of sight.

Separation anxiety normally begins when infants begin to understand “object permanence.” This can develop around four to five months however most infants do not begin to exhibit behaviours associated with separation anxiety until nine to ten months. If an infant is exhibiting separation anxiety then the parent should not try to rush through the separation. They can hold the child and let them see their surroundings and get comfortable with their caregiver. Once the child has adjusted to their new environment then it’s time for the parent to give a kiss goodbye and hand them to the caregiver.

Some children do not experience separation anxiety until they are around one and a half years old. At this developmental stage, toddlers are gaining a sense of independence that will make them more aware of when separations occur. This new awareness can cause separation anxiety to bubble to the surface of children who previously may not have had any problems with their parents leaving. Furthermore, toddlers do not have a good grasp of the concept of time. So, even if the parent leaves for only half an hour, the child might feel like he has been left with the babysitter all day.

It is important with toddlers to make them feel comfortable with the caregiver, this can be accomplished by the parent greeting the caregiver when he or she arrives and introduce the child and tell them why they are there. For example, “This is Miss Julie. She’s here to come play with you while mommy runs to the store!” The parent could then interact with the child and get them involved in an activity such as colouring or get them interested in some toys that the child enjoys, they could even turn on a movie for the child and caregiver to watch together. Once the child is occupied, the parent should then give the child a hug and take their leave.

Separation anxiety is most common in children ages 8-18 months and many outgrow this phase with time. Many children once they have gotten used to the separation transition will not exhibit the same symptoms they once did when the concept of separation was still foreign to them. However, changes in the child’s life may resurrect anxiety that had not shown its face in months. If a child has recently moved, parents are getting divorced, had a new sibling born, or even if the child is starting to come down with a cold, any of these could trigger the child into regressing back into anxiety related behaviours and cause issues during periods of separation

If a child continues to exhibit separation anxiety as they enter kindergarten and elementary school, or if the child is exhibiting extreme symptoms such as vomiting, shortness of breath, or panic attacks, the parent should consider consulting their paediatrician. There may be further medical action that needs to be taken or if there are other methods such as support groups that would be beneficial to the child.

Finally, just as each of the above techniques differs from each other so is every child unique. Some of these tactics may work wonders for one child and make separations much easier and have no effect whatsoever on another child whose transitions are just as difficult as ever. It is up to the parent to discover what works for their individual child. Hopefully, the information above will be useful for helping families navigate separation anxiety in all of its forms.

Tony Barton
Tony Barton