Separation Anxiety: How to Cope

Separation anxiety describes the feelings and behavior of babies when parents leave them with caregivers. The baby experiencing separation anxiety may scream and cry as the parent tries to leave. This is normal behavior for babies around the age of one year.

Even though the behavior of a baby with separation anxiety is normal, it can be quite upsetting to parents to see a baby get so upset. It can help parents to know what causes the anxiety. It also helps both parents and baby to know how you can head off some of the stress and how you can lessen the baby’s trauma.

A young baby does great when left with a caregiver. Parents are more upset about the separation than the infant. As long as babies are kept dry, fed, and cuddled, however, they mostly adapt well to being cared for by others.

Things change somewhere between the ages of 4-7 months. This is when babies begin to understand the concept of object permanence. Until this point, when mom or dad leave the room, baby doesn’t understand that they still exist. If baby can’t see mom or dad, it’s as if they are gone for good. For this reason, baby may cry when mom goes into the kitchen, continuing to cry until she returns. Peekaboo is a good game for teaching object permanence.

Somewhere at around the age of 8 months to one year, however, the baby learns that Mom and Dad still exist even when they aren’t in the room. Even so, a toddler can feel afraid when a parent leaves. The parent is the center of the child’s universe. The one who helps the baby manage his life. It feels uncomfortable and scary when mom and dad aren’t around. This is true separation anxiety.

Now the baby will cling to you or cry even if you just leave the room for a minute to get something. If you try to leave the baby with a babysitter or drop her off at daycare, she’s liable to screech and give you a hard time, crying, “No, no, no,” and grabbing your clothes or your hand. She won’t look at the caregiver and will try not to accept her friendship or help.

Toddlers can experience separation anxiety at different ages. Some children may not experience separation anxiety until they are from 18 months to 2 ½ years old. Others may never experience separation anxiety. For some children, it’s not age but a new situation that triggers separation anxiety, such as moving to a new home; the divorce of the toddler’s parents and the accompanying tension in the home; a new baby sister or brother; or a new babysitter, daycare center, or caregiver.

How Long Does Separation Anxiety Last?

Separation anxiety can be short-lived or last for a very long time. A great deal depends on the child’s personality and how the parents handles the anxiety. An especially sensitive child may even experience separation anxiety all the way through the elementary school years.

If separation anxiety is still affecting your older child, consult your physician. It could be the separation anxiety is a symptom of an anxiety disorder. If the older child suddenly develops separation anxiety, this could signal that the child has a deeper issue, for instance, the child may be the victim of bullying or abuse.

Kids generally don’t like to see their parents leaving. This isn’t the same thing as separation anxiety. You can distract the child who doesn’t want you to leave by showing him a new toy, for instance, or telling him to look at the enormous bird that just flew by the window. The child with separation anxiety is much more difficult to calm and help. Still, it is crucial that parents don’t give in to children with separation anxiety by giving up plans, lest children learn to cry and freak out to keep parents from leaving.

It can be nice to see how much your little one loves and is attached to you. But it can make you feel guilty to leave her to go to work or out for fun. Don’t let this stop you from carrying out your plans, be they work or play. It is healthy for parents to have a life outside of home and family. It is healthy for babies to learn to cope as individuals, without their parents. It’s good for toddlers to learn to socialize with caregivers and people other than their parents.

After a time, your child will begin to feel more secure and understand that while you sometimes leave, you always return. This knowledge offers the comfort your child needs to help her conquer her separation anxiety. Also, every time you leave, your child is learning more about how to cope in your absence, and about how to be an independent being.

Here are some tips that can help ease your child’s separation anxiety:

Consider the Timing—Don’t start your child in daycare or with a new caregiver at the time your child is most likely to experience separation anxiety, between the ages of 8 months to one year. When you have to go somewhere and leave your child with someone else, try not to do it when your child is likely to be hungry, tired, or cranky. In fact, if you can, time your goodbyes for right after a nap or mealtime.

Do Things Gradually—Invite the babysitter over to meet your child and play with her while you’re in the house. This helps your child get to know the new person without separation anxiety. Next, plan a short trip to do an errand while your child stays with the sitter. That serves as practice for when you must go out for several hours. If your child will be starting at a new daycare center or school, bring her for a visit, and play with her there. That helps make everything more familiar for when you have to leave her there for the day.

Be Firm, Be Calm—Develop a ritual that you always use when you say goodbye. For instance, “See ya later, Alligator,” and “After a while, Crocodile.” Rituals make partings seem less sudden and new. Remind your child you’re going to come back, tell her when in terms she understands, for instance, “After naptime.” Be calm, but firm in your goodbye. This is reassuring. It shows your child you’re in control. If you appear guilty, on the other hand, your child is likely to feel even more nervous about parting from you, since you seem unsure about whether you’re doing the right thing to leave her.

Don’t Sneak Away—Make sure you say goodbye to your child, rather than sneak away. It’s important that your child sees you leave and also sees you come back. It’s important that she doesn’t think you’ll try to trick her if she isn’t watching carefully. It is hard to watch your child cry, but it’s critical she learn how to cope with goodbyes.

Do As You Say—Did you promise your child you’d be back before supper? Make sure you keep that promise. It is through keeping your word that your child learns to feel confident that when you leave, you’ll also come back. This teaches your child she can make it when you’re not around, that she can be just fine without you.

It’s no small thing to leave a child who is kicking and screaming and crying for you. That’s why you want to make sure you leave your child with a sitter or caregiver you trust—one who can handle anything. If it makes you feel better, have the sitter or caregiver call you when the child has calmed down. This will give you some idea of how long your child’s separation anxiety tantrums last. You can tell if the behavior is getting better or worse by the lengthening or shortening of the tantrums each time you go, over time. For the most part, the child will already be happily playing with the sitter by the time you’re starting your car.

Are you caring for a child with separation anxiety? See if you can distract the child with an unusual toy, or by playing a game. Try singing a song or making funny faces. Just keep trying new things until something works.

If the child you’re caring for struggles with separation anxiety, it’s best not to talk about mommy and daddy. If the child asks you when they’ll be home, you should answer her question. Then you can try to distract her. “Daddy will be home at 10. Who wants to draw a picture?”

If you feel unsure, remind yourself that like all phases of childhood, your child will outgrow her separation anxiety. Remember too, that separation anxiety is normal. Consider your child’s temperament and the specifics of the situation: is she shy?  Is she used to being cared for by others?  It may take your child a little bit longer to get over her separation anxiety. Even if the neighbor’s kid is already past that stage. And that is perfectly fine, perfectly normal.

Does your child reacts more strongly with a specific babysitter or caregiver or seems troubled even after your return? Does she refuse to eat, or find it difficult to fall asleep? There may be something wrong with the caregiver. Don’t be afraid to investigate the matter. You are your child’s only and best advocate. Sometimes it really IS the sitter.

If your child’s separation anxiety goes on way into the elementary school years or beyond, or it gets in the way of daily life, it may be time to talk things over with your child’s doctor. There is a mental health disorder called separation anxiety disorder that isn’t just a normal phase. Separation anxiety disorder is a rare condition in which children are afraid of getting lost and separated from their families for good. Someone with this disorder may have extreme fear that something terrible will happen to them and to their families. Signs of separation anxiety disorder include:

  • Panicky behavior (shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting) or having panic attacks when a parent is about to leave.
  • Having bad dreams about being separated from family
  • Being afraid to sleep alone
  • Being excessively worried about becoming lost or being kidnapped
  • Being afraid to go anywhere without parents

Most children learn to be without their parents without a freak-out and without need for a doctor’s visit. If you aren’t sure about your child’s behavior, it’s always a good thing to talk to a caring doctor. It’s more than likely your child’s doctor will tell you that your child’s separation anxiety and behavior are completely normal. Separation anxiety is your child learning how to be independent. It’s part of the process of growing up.

Found what you just read useful? Why not consider sending a donation to our Kars4Kids youth and educational programs. Or help us just by sharing!

Subscribe via email

About Varda Epstein

Varda Meyers Epstein serves as editor in chief of Kars4Kids Parenting. A native of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Varda is the mother of 12 children and is also a grandmother of 12. Her work has been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, The Learning Site, The eLearning Site, and Internet4Classrooms.