Understanding & Dealing with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is when toddlers and babies become upset and throw tantrums at the prospect of being separated from their parents. It is a normal phase that most toddlers begin to experience by their 1st birthday, and though it can be unsettling, it is something that you can help your child get through by being understanding and using a few proven tricks.

How It Develops

Separation anxiety usually begins in babies around 6-8 months old and peaks at 12-18 months. How long it lasts depends on each individual case and on how parents handle the situation, however it does tend to ease up by the 2nd-3rd year. Separation anxiety usually develops in toddlers and babies who feel stressed at the prospect of being left alone or with strangers by their caregivers for fear of never seeing their parents or said caregivers again. 

Such feelings will usually result in crying, clinginess and uncooperativeness in what are normally easygoing and friendly children. If separation anxiety lasts into elementary school years and interferes with the child’s normal activities, it could indicate an anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety that develops suddenly in older children, on the other hand, might be caused by other factors, such as bullying or abuse.

Helping Your Toddler Cope with Separation

Separation anxiety should be handled with great sensitivity and understanding on the part of the parents. Do not belittle your toddler’s worries; instead, try to be supportive, encouraging and loving. Here are some simple but effective methods that you can use to help your child overcome its anxiety:

  • Control your emotions. Never show your toddler that you are upset at leaving it with others, such as at its daycare center or with a babysitter, as they will pick up on your distress and will react to it. Try to show enthusiasm for and confidence in your choice of caregiver instead. 
  • Never sneak away while your toddler isn’t looking. Though you might be tempted to do this, refrain from it at all costs, as it only deepens the child’s anxiety and will prolong its struggle with separation anxiety. 
  • Mentally prepare your toddler beforehand. Talk to your toddler about spending time with its grandparents or at daycare at least a day in advance and regularly remind it of the fun it is going to have there. Being prepared and knowing what to expect will help your toddler better deal with its separation anxiety when the time comes. 
  • Keep goodbyes short and sweet. Don’t draw out your goodbyes; give your toddler a quick kiss, a positive statement about when you’re coming back, and leave. Coming back to comfort your crying child will only make things worse. You might also want to create a goodbye routine; try to make your leaving a fun event by establishing a special handshake or kissing sequence with your child. Once you’ve gone through your goodbye routine, make sure to leave quickly and confidently after giving your little one an encouraging word of farewell. 
  • Take along a favorite stuffed toy or blanket. Such objects help give children a sense of security and familiarity, and might enable them to calm down more easily when they’re having a tantrum. 
  • Stand your ground. No matter how persistently your toddler cries and clings, stay true to your resolution and don’t waver or give in to your toddler’s demands to be held or be taken back home. You need to teach your child that tantrums won’t get it what it wants, and help it accept the current arrangement. 
  • Be supportive in both your words and your actions. Keep your tone and attitude positive when discussing daycare or your parent’s house (if that’s where you’re going to be leaving your toddler) with your toddler. Focus on highlighting the positive and fun things that are in store, such as making friends and playing games. Avoid mentioning anything that would directly remind your child that it would have to stay away from home. Try not to get angry, and don’t scold, threaten or bribe your child into submission.

When to Call the Doctor

Separation anxiety is a temporary phase that most children grow out of by their 2nd or 3rd birthday; however, if your toddler continues to experience intense separation anxiety well into its preschool years or beyond, you should discuss the situation with your pediatrician, as your child might be suffering from a separation anxiety disorder. Children with this disorder fear being lost if separated from their family members and tend to believe that something bad will happen to them if they’re left alone. Watch out for the following signs to determine whether your child might have separation anxiety disorder:

  • Fear of sleeping alone
  • Worrying about being lost or kidnapped
  • Nightmares about separation
  • Becoming physically ill or hyperventilating at the prospect of separation