Separation anxiety is an extremely contagious emotional reaction, which starts with a child demanding a parent remains with them instead of being left with someone else and ends with the parent feeling guilty at walking away. Separation anxiety appears at approximately one year of age. Developing a few strategies to ease your child’s fear along with coping mechanisms to help relieve your guilt contributes to getting you through this phase.
Symptoms of Separation Anxiety
The most common symptoms of separation anxiety include:
- Unfounded fear that some unnamed horror will occur to the parent when away from the child
- Child’s demand to stay with parent by refusing to be left with another caregiver
- Refusing to sleep away from home or when away from parent
- Fear of being alone forever
- Nightmares of being orphaned
- Sudden ailments such as headaches or stomach aches appearing only on days when parents are away
- Bed wetting
- Temper tantrums and pleading that are repeated and may escalate
Why and When does Separation Anxiety Occur?
Separation anxiety goes hand-in-hand with “object permanence”. This is the stage when a child begins to realize that people and objects do not dissipate when they are out of sight. Nearly all babies experience separation anxiety to some degree. Many children object to separation from one parent and not the other. This is a temporary phase of development that requires patience and parental encouragement.
The first attack of separation anxiety may appear as early as 6 or 7 months or as late as 12 to 15 months. Generally, it reaches its peak at approximately 18 months of age with occasional relapses into the second year.
Risk Factors of Separation Anxiety
The onset and degree of separation anxiety commonly appears after events that are traumatic to young children such as death of a pet, moving to a new home or a change in caregivers or schools.
- Children who are rarely away from their parent may be more vulnerable.
- Some professionals suggest that the anxiety is an outward expression from the child of the parent’s anxiety or vice versa.
- Genetics or family characteristics for stress related anxiety may be indicative of vulnerability to severe bouts of separation anxiety in children.
How to Deal with Separation Anxiety
Here are some ways to help your baby to cope with the emotional upheaval he is experiencing.
1. Make Leaving a Game
The first step to becoming accustomed to this separation is for your infant to initiate the action. When your child crawls or toddles into another room that you know is safe, force yourself to wait 5 minutes before following. Once done, it’s your turn to leave the room. Inform him first that you are going, tell him where you will be and emphasize that you will be back.
2. Make “Goodbye” a Norm
Hug and kiss your infant every time you leave his sight. By saying “goodbye” when you go into the kitchen, put him down for a nap and take the garbage outside, it becomes normal for you to leave and return. Avoid sneaking off when leaving your child with a sitter. To a child, this seems that you disappeared into thin air, which only increases his fear.
3. Show Positive Emotions
Your child senses your fears and emotions better than anyone. Use light, positive tones when speaking to the sitter. Avoid acting upset if your baby cries – at least until you are well out of range. Once you leave, stay gone! Stop yourself from returning to “calm” your child. Repeating the process of leaving makes it more difficult for both of you.
4. More Methods
- Choose childcare services with familiar people and environments such as the other parent or a grandparent in your home rather than another location. Children may still act out but adjustment is easier during the absence.
- Introduce your child to a new caregiver in the environment in which he will spend time. Take your child to the new service provider several times and spend time with him/her playing with the toys, reading a book and interacting with the new caregiver. Get him/ her familiar with the new caregiver.
- Take your baby with you as much as possible rather than leaving him/her with someone while you go shopping or visiting friends.
Tips for Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Children
- Learn to recognize the triggers that set off an attack of anxiety in your child such as his dislike of a certain caregiver in the school or his avoidance of another child at the day care.
- Give your child at least 15-minutes of one-on-one time without interruption and pay attention to what he wants to say or do
- For children that are able to verbally express fears, encourage them to tell you how they feel responding with examples where the child felt that way before without any dreadful event occurring.
- Preparing yourself and your child to handle transition areas such as getting out of the car and entering school by providing instructions of the process [we hold hands getting out of the car, walk together into the school] can alleviate the stress.
- Develop consistent daily routines. Knowing in detail what comes next is important for a child to feel safe.
- Let your child know that you are the one who makes the rules. Show respect for his feelings but avoid allowing his feelings to be more important than your family’s needs.
Tips for Healthy Separation and Independence in Children
- Don’t wear your guilt on your sleeve. Infants are beginning to learn how to control your behavior just as you are learning to mold theirs. Saying, “I’m sorry but I have to leave” is something that your baby understands as an opportunity to stop you – and they will.
- Give your child control at home by letting him choose between toys rather than over your reactions to his behavior.
- Appear calm when you leave him with a caregiver. Children mimic your behavior.
- Create social participating experiences such as play dates with other children, public outings together and physical activities with others of his age.
- After a day or two away from the sitter, try to arrange a shorter day on the first day back.
- Use positive reinforcement techniques such as praise for the most insignificant accomplishments even those that are expected such as sharing with a playmate or going to bed without a fuss.
Watch a video to learn more about separation anxiety and how you can deal with it: