By Lauren Yelvington
Separation anxiety — when children do not want to separate from their parent or caregiver — is a normal emotional experience for young children. Children rely on us to provide for their needs and make them feel loved and secure. While it’s hard on everyone, there are strategies you can use to ease the emotional pain for both you and your child.
Separation anxiety most commonly occurs in babies around 6 to 10 months of age. This is because babies of this age have developed an understanding of “object permanence,” the knowledge that people and things exist, even though they are not present and cannot be seen.
In toddlers, there is an increased prevalence of separation anxiety when they are around 18 to 24 months of age. This is because they understand that you can leave, but do not fully understand that you will come back. Children of this age lack an of understanding and feeling for the sense of time. They would also simply prefer that you stay with them.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
There are several signs of separation anxiety in children. They include clinging to a parent or caregiver; refusing to separate from or do activities that separate them from a parent or caregiver; and excessive crying when a parent or caregiver tries to leave the child (or even the room).
Separation Anxiety and Sleep
When experiencing separation anxiety, one of the most difficult times for young children to separate from a parent or caregiver is at bedtime. They may also wake up during the night panicked that you are not there. This is especially difficult for babies who are first put to sleep by their parent or caregiver, and then placed into their bed or crib for sleep.
Strategies to Alleviate Separation Anxiety
While it is stressful, there are things you can do to make your child more comfortable when he or she is experiencing separation anxiety:
- With infants, play games of peekaboo to show them that, even though you may “disappear,” you will come back.
- Introduce your child to additional caregivers by about 6 months of age. Begin with familiar people, like family members, and add caregivers, like babysitters or daycare.
- When possible, plan a practice visit to a caregiver or daycare before leaving your child for the first time.
- Give your child the opportunity to meet or get to know a caregiver while you are present.
- When you do separate from your child — whether you are leaving them with a caregiver or in their crib/bed for sleep — keep your goodbye/goodnight loving but brief. Lingering will cause more anxiety in anticipation of the separation.
- Be consistent. Routines are critical during daytime separations as well as at bedtime. Children are reassured by predictability.
- Do not disappear — sneaking away when your child isn’t looking or after you put them to bed compromises their trust in you.
- Reassure your child that you will return, and give an approximate time for return in a language they understand (e.g., “Mommy comes back,” and “I will be back after you have your snack”).
- Validate your child’s feelings. Offer an example of when your child may have felt worried before and how they resolved the situation successfully. Our goal is to build confidence and competence in our children that they can handle their feelings.
- Comfort your child when needed (but try your best to help them create independence).
Separation anxiety is a normal emotional stage for young children. While it is stressful for both parents and little ones, these tips and coping strategies can help you ease the tension and reduce the time your child experiences it.