The first time my child cried as he realized I was leaving him at daycare was heartbreaking.
He’d been there for a week and everything had been fine, but now he realized that this wasn’t just a one week gig but an everyday occurrence, and he was not happy!
Separation anxiety in toddlers, or children of any age, is serious business, and it’s not exactly easy on parents either.
Logically I knew he was okay, but my heart and head were racing a mile a minute wondering if I was doing the right thing. And even though this was my third child, it wasn’t any easier to leave him crying with virtual strangers. The anxiety about leaving him was just as intense as with my other two children.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned by being a parent to three children, it’s that the anxiety changes shape and color, but it’s always there for one reason or another.
And it’s not just our parental separation anxiety (or general parental anxiety) we have to manage, but our children’s anxiety, too.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a normal part of development where a child becomes upset when the familiar caregiver leaves the room because they don’t yet understand that you will return.
In their first year, babies slowly develop their senses of time. So when you are out of sight, they think you are gone indefinitely.
They are not comfortable with people they don’t know and experience a surge of fear upon realizing that they are being left with someone who isn’t their parent.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms in Children
Separation anxiety in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers often involves the following:
- Crying when you leave the room
- Crying when handed to another person briefly even in your presence
- Clinging or crying, especially in new situations
- Waking up in the middle of the night crying when previously they had been sleeping through the night
- Having a hard time falling asleep when previously they fell asleep easier or with less intervention
- Running after you when they see you head to the door
- Repeatedly asking where you will be and when you will be back
Separation Anxiety in Babies and Toddlers
Think about what happens when you leave the room and your 9 month old cries because she hasn’t yet learned that when you leave to go get a glass of water, you will return within a minute. For her, out of sight means gone.
Babies have no concept of object permanence, meaning they don’t understand that something (or someone) they can’t see is still there.
Or consider the struggle when you hug your two year old goodbye at daycare, and as you get to the door she runs over and grabs your legs so you don’t leave.
She may know that you will return, but the anticipation of saying goodbye is really hard for her.
Separation anxiety usually begins around 8 months and peaks about the age of 2. Then it decreases slowly, eventually fading out by 3 years of age.
Separation Anxiety in Preschoolers and Beyond
Kids will experience separation anxiety at different times for different reasons.
Especially with children under 5, it’s not uncommon for them to appear to be fine for months, only to have a resurgence of separation anxiety 4-6 months into a new routine.
These episodes of separation anxiety typically last a few weeks.
Separation Anxiety Disorder
For some children, separation anxiety continues into early elementary school and becomes more severe, evolving into a fear of something happening to their parents.
This is called Separation Anxiety Disorder and is not the same as developmentally typical separation anxiety that happens in babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
Children who have Separation Anxiety Disorder often have severe anxiety at the thought of you leaving and usually won’t feel comfortable with you out of their sight, among other behaviors. According to Stanford Children’s Health, other symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder include:
- Refusing to sleep alone or going to school
- Recurrent nightmares about separation
- Frequent stomach aches, headaches, & other physical symptoms
- Excessive worry about family members’ well-being
- Panic when saying goodbye
- And more
If you are concerned your child might have Separation Anxiety Disorder, please talk to your pediatrician for medical advice. Treatment is possible using methods like cognitive behavioral therapy.
A Normal Part of Development
Although separation anxiety begins in infancy and continues through the preschool years, it presents itself in similar ways for babies, toddlers, and preschoolers.
As children grow, they become more aware of the world and people around them and can begin to understand that, even though parents or caregivers leave, they will eventually come back.
However, even when children understand this concept, they can still experience anxiety around leaving their parents.
This is especially true for children who have never been in a childcare or school setting before, or have been with their parents for an extended period of time.
How to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Kids
There are many simple and easy ways to support your child as they experience separation anxiety:
(1) Pay extra attention to them when you are together– cuddle with them and engage with them. This means putting away your cell phone and giving them your undivided attention.
(2) Spend extra time comforting them when they are afraid and try to be patient with them if they need extra cuddles or snuggle time before bed.
(3) Encourage babies to explore out of your sight in a safe space for a few minutes alone to help baby learn that you can leave and come back.
(4) Always communicate to your baby, toddler and preschooler that you are leaving the room and that you will be right back.
Do this even with little babies as they will begin to understand your tone and words and see that you are following through with what you said. Repetition will help your child feel more secure.
(5) Don’t try to sneak away from your child without them seeing you. This can often backfire and lead to more anxiety.
Instead, tell them where you will be and when you will be returning. If they will be asleep when you return, promise to check in on them and give them a kiss- and really do it! Even in their sleep, they know you are there.
(6) For babies, introduce a lovey anytime after 12 months to help them with transitions to new places and with new people. Include the lovey in your daily routines and especially at bed and nap times.
(7) Introduce new people and places slowly and give your child time to explore with you nearby. Do not expect a baby, toddler or preschooler to be okay seeing a classroom for the first time and being left there.
Try to plan a play session at a new daycare before you leave them there, and visit with the teachers and staff a couple times so they are familiar with their faces.
Easing Parental Separation Anxiety Also Helps Our Kids
Our children are always watching us and taking their cues from us as to how to behave, so when we have parental separation anxiety it’s important to remember the following:
(1) When you find yourself in a situation that causes anxiety for you, such as having to leave your child for the first time with a baby-sitter or in daycare, remain calm and take some deep breaths.
(2) Babies, toddlers, and preschoolers often pick up on our energy, so prepare yourself with a mantra that you can say to yourself to help stay focused and calm in front of your children.
Tell yourself that you will be ok and your child will be ok. They are loved, and you are not abandoning them; you will return.
(3) Allow yourself some time to adjust to the new change in your situation and have realistic expectations for your child and yourself. These episodes of separation anxiety typically last 2-4 weeks but with the right support will pass.
All children and their parents experience separation anxiety in the early years. It is a normal part of development and a way for children to gain their independence.
Take a deep breath and know that this too shall pass.
Have you or your child experienced separation anxiety? Tell us about your experience in the comments.