Clinging to your arm at morning drop-off, wailing when you leave the room—every parent will face separation anxiety at some point in their young child’s early years. You know you’ll return soon, but it’s hard not to feel guilty, sad, and overwhelmed when you say goodbye to that tear-streaked face of your little one
While separation anxiety is perfectly normal, it can be a challenging phase of development. Fortunately, finding effective methods to respond to your child’s anxiety can help to strengthen their budding independence. Learning how to help a child with separation anxiety starts with understanding its causes and identifying the techniques you can use to encourage resilience. By practicing these tools, you can help limit intense separation anxiety and help your child cope with extended or brief separations.
What Is Child Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development—but that doesn’t always mean it’s an easy part for kids or their caregivers to navigate. For some parents, leaving a distressed child in the care of others can come with different levels of discomfort, while others might benefit from having familiar friends or family available to provide care. But no matter your comfort level with separation anxiety, learning about it and how to cope with it may help to ease the process.
In general, separation anxiety tends to start in infancy and ebbs and flows through the early years:
Infancy – Around 6 months, babies become aware that their caregivers are separate people. But your baby doesn’t understand that things continue to exist when they’re out of sight (this is called object permanence).
When they can’t see you, they may fear you’re gone forever. This stage of a young child’s separation anxiety is often at its most acute around 10 to 18 months. However, this doesn’t mean you should never leave your baby in another’s care until they’re older. Infants can still adjust and adapt to being in another caregiver’s arms while you’re away.
Toddlerhood – For some children, normal separation anxiety can be a short-lived phase in infancy, and may even resolve around age two or three. But it’s also pretty normal for two- and three-year-olds to become upset when being dropped off at a new school, daycare, or even a caregiver’s home. How your young child reacts can differ simply because of their temperament and personality, and isn’t necessarily a symptom of more significant anxiety or mental health concerns.
Still, if your toddler experiences separation anxiety that lasts a long time—such as being unable to stop crying, experiencing physical symptoms, or showing other anxiety symptoms even when you’re around—it’s a good idea to check in with your child’s healthcare provider about these concerns.
- School-age – Normal separation anxiety can resurface in an older child, especially when going back to school. In school-age kids, you may see child symptoms like:
- Refusing to go to school or sleep away from home
- Frequent stomach aches or headaches
- Being worried about you getting hurt or sick
- Frequent nightmares
If your child’s separation anxiety isn’t getting better, or reappears in third or fourth grade, talking to health professionals or doctors for advice is a good idea.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety isn’t a medical diagnosis, but rather a description of very normal feelings young children can experience when separate from their caregivers. The “symptoms” of separation anxiety can thus be better described as “signs”—and it’s important to know that different children may experience it in their own way, and it might not always entail tearful wails. That said, the most common signs of separation anxiety in young children include:
- Crying when the caregiver leaves the room
- Being clingy and fearful in new situations
- Sleep training regression (no longer sleeping through the night without crying)
- Unable to fall asleep without a parent nearby
Keep in mind that the signs of separation anxiety may be different in your child. You know your child best—if you suspect your little one is experiencing separation anxiety, they probably are.
5 Ways to Calm and Manage Separation Anxiety in Kids
You can help your child cope with separation anxiety at any age. Here are 5 simple and effective ways to understand separation anxiety and support your child through it.
#1 Build Independence From the Start
Have you ever watched your infant wake up from a nap and noticed that they don’t immediately start looking for you? Even very young babies can enjoy a bit of independent time!
Here’s how to introduce self-reliance gently to younger children:
- When you see your baby showing contentment on their own, let them have a few minutes of solitary time.
- A contented baby will occupy themselves happily playing with their fingers and toes, looking around, babbling, and kicking
- By experiencing small moments of alone time (while you’re close by, of course), your baby learns that they can be safe, happy, and secure during independent play
If you have an older child who’s experiencing separation anxiety, know that it’s never too late to start encouraging your child’s independence at any age. Just like babies, toddlers, and preschoolers can benefit from solitary time for imaginative play. During this time for free play, children can experience what it’s like to be independent, even if you’re still close by.
#2 Support and Validate Their Feelings
For parents of babies or some neurodivergent children, it might not always be possible to communicate verbally that you understand how they feel and reassure them that you’ll come back. For children old enough to understand, however, the way you connect with them about their separation anxiety can make a big difference. Instead of trying to talk them out of what they’re experiencing, acknowledge that their feelings are valid and show you understand and support them. For example, you can:
- Let them express their feelings – Avoid shushing them or making argumentative statements like, “We do this every day,” or “There’s no reason to be upset.”
- Respond with acceptance and calm – Welcome the feelings they express, validate them, and offer simple but truthful reassurances about when you’ll return. For instance, you might say, “I hear that you don’t want to go. You are safe here with [caregiver’s name]. I’ll be back after you finish eating dinner.”
#3 Use Visual Aids to Help Them Understand Time
Anyone who’s tried to explain “Grandma’s coming next week” knows young children don’t have a strong understanding of time. Help your child understand the flow of their day by using a simple visual schedule. A visual schedule can help children to visualize what will happen next, adding a predictable routine to their day and supporting feelings of safety and security.
Using clear words and bright pictures, outline the basic daily routine. For example, your child’s schedule might say:
- Wake up
- Eat breakfast
- Go to school
- Come home
…and so on. A schedule also helps you talk about time in a way they’ll understand. Instead of reminding them you’ll be back at noon, try: “Remember, I’ll pick you up after nap time,” or “After school, we’ll have our snack.”
#4 Use a Security Object
A special toy, blanket, or another token you give your child when you’re apart will help your child feel connected even when they can’t see you. This is an example of concrete thinking. When kids have something “concrete” or tangible to connect you to them, they can remember their connection to their parents more firmly, anticipate what will happen next, and navigate their situation more easily in general.
For example, Otter from Slumberkins comes with a secret pocket where you can put a note or picture. Try reading Otter’s story together, then tell your child Otter will hold a special message just for them that they can look at when they’re thinking of you.
#5 Model Confidence
Modeling calmness and confidence for your child in situations where separation anxiety may arise can help to impart feelings of safety and security. This is easier if you don’t drag goodbyes out too long. Remember:
- It’s okay to leave – Even if you feel guilty or neglectful leaving, try reminding yourself that spending time apart is important for you both.
- Crying is normal – The babysitter is there, and the dinner reservations are made, but your 2-year-old is clinging to your leg and sobbing. You can’t just walk away—can you? Yes! Sometimes your child will be crying when you leave, and that’s okay.
- Don’t let anxiety become a cycle – Parental anxiety has been shown to increase the child’s separation anxiety. Yes, it can be hard, but by leaving quickly and confidently, you’re helping your child feel better sooner.
You’re Always Connected, Even When You’re Apart
Separation anxiety is a difficult but normal part of childhood. Remind your child that it’s okay to be sad when you leave, but you’ll always come back.
Separation anxiety may be difficult for both the parent and the child. As a caregiver, it is important to learn about self care for parents. Doing so can help ease these challenging situations and help manage parental stress.
Remember: When you stay calm during goodbyes, you show your child that being away from each other is nothing to fear. With your confident reassurance, your child will build their own confidence and peace of mind.
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