It’s natural for your young child to feel anxious when you say goodbye. Although it can be difficult, separation anxiety is a normal stage of development. With understanding and these coping strategies, separation anxiety can be relieved—and should fade as your child gets older. However, if anxieties intensify or are persistent enough to get in the way of school or other activities, your child may have separation anxiety disorder. While this condition may require professional treatment, there is a lot that you as a parent can do to help ease your child’s fears and make them feel safer.
What is separation anxiety?
In early childhood, crying, tantrums, or clinginess are healthy reactions to separation and a normal stage of development. Separation anxiety can begin before a child’s first birthday, and may pop up again or last until a child is four years old. However, both the intensity level and timing of separation anxiety vary tremendously from child to child. A little worry over leaving mom or dad is normal, even when your child is older. You can ease your child’s separation anxiety by staying patient and consistent, and by gently but firmly setting limits.
Some kids, however, experience separation anxiety that doesn’t go away, even with a parent’s best efforts. These children 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.
How to ease “normal” separation anxiety
For children with normal separation anxiety, there are steps you can take to make the process of separation anxiety easier.
Practice separation. Leave your child with a caregiver for brief periods and short distances at first. As your child gets used to separation, you can gradually leave for longer and travel further.
Schedule separations after naps or feedings. Babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when they’re tired or hungry.
Develop a quick “goodbye” ritual. Rituals are reassuring and can be as simple as a special wave through the window or a goodbye kiss. Keep things quick, though, so you can:
Leave without fanfare. Tell your child you are leaving and that you will return, then go—don’t stall or make it a bigger deal than it is.
Follow through on promises. For your child to develop the confidence that they can handle separation, it’s import 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.
What is separation anxiety disorder?
Separation anxiety disorder is NOT a normal stage of development, but a serious emotional problem characterized by extreme distress when a child is away from the primary caregiver. However, since normal separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder share many of the same symptoms, it can be confusing to try to figure out if your child just needs time and understanding—or has a more serious problem.
The main differences between normal separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder are the intensity of your child’s fears, and whether these fears keep them from normal activities. Children with separation anxiety disorder may become agitated at just the thought of being away from mom or dad, and may complain of sickness to avoid playing with friends or attending school. When symptoms are extreme enough, these anxieties can add up to a disorder. But no matter how fretful your child becomes when parted from you, separation anxiety disorder is treatable. There are plenty of things you can do to make your child feel safer and ease the anxiety of separation.
Symptoms of separation anxiety disorder
Kids with separation anxiety disorder feel constantly worried or fearful about separation. Many kids are overwhelmed with symptoms such as:
Fear that something terrible will happen to a loved one. The most common fear a child with separation anxiety disorder experiences is the worry that harm will come to a loved one in the child’s absence. For example, the child may constantly worry about a parent becoming sick or getting hurt.
Worry that an unpredicted event will lead to permanent separation. Your child may fear that once separated from you, something will happen to maintain the separation. For example, they may worry about being kidnapped or getting lost.
Refusal to go to school. A child with separation anxiety disorder may have an unreasonable fear of school, and will do almost anything to stay home.
Reluctance to go to sleep. Separation anxiety disorder can make children insomniacs, either because of the fear of being alone or due to nightmares about separation.
Physical sickness like a headache or stomachache. At the time of separation, or before, children with separation anxiety problems often complain they feel ill.
Clinging to the caregiver. Your child may shadow you around the house or cling to your arm or leg if you attempt to step out.
Common causes of separation anxiety disorder
Separation anxiety disorder occurs because a child feels unsafe in some way. Take a look at anything that may have thrown your child’s world off balance, made them feel threatened, or upset their normal routine. If you can pinpoint the root cause—or causes—you’ll be one step closer to helping your child through their struggles.
Common causes of separation anxiety disorder in children include:
Change in environment. Changes in surroundings, such as a new house, school, or day care situation, can trigger separation anxiety disorder.
Stress. Stressful situations like switching schools, divorce, or the loss of a loved one—including a pet—can trigger separation anxiety problems.
An over-protective parent. In some cases, separation anxiety disorder may be the manifestation of your own stress or anxiety. Parents and children can feed one another’s anxieties.
Insecure attachment. The attachment bond is the emotional connection formed between an infant and their primary caretaker. While a secure attachment bond ensures that your child will feel secure, understood and calm enough for optimal development, an insecure attachment bond can contribute to childhood problems such as separation anxiety.