Teary and tantrum-filled goodbyes are a common part of a child’s earliest years. Around the first birthday, many kids develop separation anxiety, getting upset when a parent tries to leave them with someone else. Though separation anxiety is a perfectly normal part of childhood development, it can be unsettling. Understanding what your child is going through and having a few coping strategies can help both of you get through it.
Research suggests that the intensity of separation and/or stranger anxiety may depend on the child’s personality. Some children are naturally more emotional and tune into their negative feelings more intensely than other kids.
The timing of separation anxiety can vary widely from child to child. Some kids may go through it later, between 18 months and 2½ years of age. Some may never experience it. And for others, certain life stresses can trigger feelings of anxiety about being separated from a parent: a new child care situation or caregiver, a new sibling, moving to a new place, or tension at home.
Separation or stranger anxiety peaks at certain ages:
- At about 8 months, when a child can distinguish between parents and other adults, and is highly aware when a parent leaves or enters the room. At this age, stranger anxiety may begin and last, with varying frequency, for a couple of years, depending on the child.
- At about 1 year, when the child has become more aware of his surroundings and more intensely attached to his parents.
- At about 18 months, when many children are making major strides toward independence, but cling to babyhood.
- At about 2½ years old, when the child can form mental pictures of himself and others and knows all about coming and going, but still may not be “sure” that you’re coming back.
- At age 3 to 4, when the child has a better command of language and can recognize reasons for her feelings. Some children still feel anxiety, or exaggerate it to stretch out every possible second of attention from Mom or Dad.
How long does separation anxiety last? It varies, depending on the child and how a parent responds. In some cases, depending on a child’s temperament, separation anxiety can last from infancy through the elementary school years. In cases where the separation anxiety interferes with an older child’s normal activities, it can indicate a deeper anxiety disorder. If separation anxiety appears out of the blue in an older child, there might be another problem, like bullying or abuse.
When separation or stranger anxiety strikes, the child may:
- Hide behind your clothes when someone speaks to her.
- Cry and cling when you leave, but be calm while you’re gone — and then be teary and aggressive when you return.
- Act upset if anyone in the household goes away for a number of days.
- Cry a lot upon a move to a new house.
- Cry inconsolably despite soothing talk and rocking.
- Throw bedtime temper tantrums or continually get out of bed to rejoin the family.
It’s important to a child that her parents are available and dependable. Use signals and cues, along with old-fashioned common sense, to deal with anxieties.
- Timing is everything. Try not to start day care or child care with an unfamiliar person when your little one is between the ages of 8 months and 1 year, when separation anxiety is first likely to appear. Also, try not to leave when your child is likely to be tired, hungry, or restless. If at all possible, schedule your departures after naps and mealtimes.
- Beginning when your son is very young, take him to different places around different people.
- Arrange early separations. Stress is lessened if your child is in a familiar place, so arrange for childcare in your home the first few times you are apart. If your son is to enroll in a day-care home or center, visit it with him a couple of times, and stay with him for an hour or so the first day. Bring along a family photograph, teddy bear, blanket or other item that reminds your child of you and your home. Many grocery stores or churches provide opportunities for brief separation.
- Be calm and consistent. Create an exit ritual during which you say a pleasant, loving, and firm goodbye. Stay calm and show confidence in your child. Reassure him that you’ll be back — and explain how long it will be until you return using concepts kids will understand (such as “after lunch” or “after one Scooby Doo episode”) because your child can’t yet understand time. Give him your full attention when you say goodbye, and when you say you’re leaving, mean it; coming back will only make things worse. Make sure that he can’t see you once you leave. Lingering after your firm, clear departure can sabotage the whole process. Never sneak out.
- Follow through on promises. It’s important to make sure that you return when you have promised to. This is critical — this is how your child will develop the confidence that he can make it through the time apart.
- Almost all children quit crying within minutes of the parent’s departure. If your child doesn’t, strategize with her caregiver. For example, try bringing her favorite movie or book for her to watch or read upon your immediate exit. This tactic may distract her from your absence.
- When she meets someone new, give her social cues — smile and be pleasant. Kids are sensitive to facial expressions and gestures, and mimic you. They will become anxious if you appear anxious.
- Suggest that a new caregiver or babysitter let your son become accustomed to her before picking him up. Taking it slowly lets the child set the pace.
- Suggest that the new caregiver or babysitter offer your son a choice of toys or things to do, and not just force an object on him. He wants to feel in control of the encounter.
- Trust your instincts. If your child refuses to go to a certain babysitter or day care center or shows other signs of tension, such as trouble sleeping or loss of appetite, then there could be a problem with the child care situation.
WHEN TO CALL THE DOCTOR
If you’ve tried a number of strategies to reduce your child’s separation and/or stranger anxieties, have encouraged and complemented your child on strides toward independence, but she is still having difficulty, it’s a good idea to share your concerns with your child’s physician. Talk with your doctor if your child has these signs:
- panic symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath) or panic attacks before a parent leaves
- nightmares about separation
- fear of sleeping alone
- excessive worry about being lost or kidnapped or going places without a parent
For most kids, the anxiety of being separated from a parent passes without any need for medical attention. But if you have concerns, talk to your doctor.