Understanding Separation Anxiety

A stressful yet normal part of your child's development

You can't go to the toilet alone. Putting your baby down to sleep ends in shrieks of protest. And drop off at childcare means endless tears. What's going on? Welcome to separation anxiety. Don't worry – it's a normal part of a child's development, and usually just a passing phase. That being said, it can often be a stressful time, which is why you need some developmental know-how and a few ideas to get you both through.

What is separation anxiety?

Put simply, when a young child forms a strong bond, they generally dislike it when it's broken. This dislike can turn to distress and become separation anxiety. Whether they're mentally healthy and securely attached, or they're facing insecurity or psychological hurdles, it happens to almost every child. So don't be too worried. It's normal, and just goes to show how special your bond really is to your child.

When does it happen?

Typically around 6-9 months of age. This is when your child begins to gain awareness of the people and things around them. The anxiety tends to ebb and flow, peaking at certain times, calming at others, and re-emerging down the track. But eventually, you'll typically start noticing it decline when your child enters the preschool years.

How is it triggered?

Your child's age, temperament, environment, and familiarity with both parents all play a role in how and when their separation anxiety comes about. While each child is different, there are a few common triggers –parents disappearing from view, going to work, meeting new people, or simply heading off to sleep at night. Other triggers include the birth of a new baby, or when a major change – like a divorce – occurs in the family.

Learning through experience

Your child's always trying to learn more about the world, understand themselves and their relationships, and discover what they have control over. It can be a difficult journey. And we know it's not always easy for them – especially as they depend on you for all aspects of their wellbeing.

But the best way to manage is through experience. Most parents notice their child moves away and comes back in repeated intervals. They might toddle off, and then make eye contact as if to say, “Look at me”. They'll return for a cuddle, after a fright, or simply to reconnect. And then they're off again.

Over time their range increases. However, if it's you, not your child, who initiates the separation, they must learn to settle and connect with someone else. For example, heading off to school represents a huge milestone for them, but to do this successfully they must feel like they can go without you, that you'll be there for them at the end of the day, that someone else will look after them, and that you'll both be okay with this. If you can set this up, you're on the right track. Separation anxiety is less likely to occur, and your child will find it easier to play and interact with others.

Being there for your child

It's only natural for your child to experience anxiety as they face the challenges of growing up. But if you're noticing their levels are above normal, excessive, or continuing well past preschool age, they could have Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD). It affects under 4% of Western children, and is more common in families with a genetic risk, parental anxiety, or with ongoing family difficulties. So if you're concerned, it's a good idea to seek out professional help.

Summing it up

  • What: The anxiety your child feels when a strong bond is ruptured. It's a normal and expected part of their development, and happens with nearly all children.
  • When: It begins around 6-9 months of age, comes and goes at certain times, and usually starts to decline when your child reaches preschool age.
  • How: Everything from your child's age and temperament, to their environment and familiarity with both parents, plays a role in how and when their separation anxiety surfaces.
  • Who: Each parent-child relationship is different. You'll have a specific bond between you and your child, so their levels of anxiety and how you manage them will be unique.
  • Why: Separations can be stressful for both you and your child. But understanding that their anxiety stems from real needs, and being aware of its nature, can help you better manage the challenges they'll face growing up.

How to manage your child's separation anxiety

  1. Start small – treat separation as a muscle to be built, and don't start with the heavy lifting. Instead, begin with small separations. This way your child becomes familiar with your comings and goings and learns to trust that you'll return. If you're going to be away for a full day next month, try going out for an hour here or there. Establishing good managing habits early on is important. Importantly, try to avoid leaving your child with someone they don't know or feel comfortable with, or whom you don't trust.
  2. Stay calm – if you can keep a cool head when your child's upset, you'll not only be able to think clearly and find the best solutions, but your child will see that the situation isn't overwhelming you. And this makes it easier for them to calm down too.
  3. Don't force it – because this is a normal phase, and it's okay to keep your child close and comfort them. But that doesn't mean you have to put your life on hold. Just know that separation anxiety will decline naturally over time, without intervention.
  4. Validate their feelings – when they're upset, make sure they know you're there for them. You can say things like – "I know you're upset that mummy's going to the supermarket, but Daddy's here with you. I'll be back after bath time." Also, try and use language that describes time in a child-friendly way, like – "after The Wiggles is finished" or "when you have your bottle."
  5. Be prepared – a little bit of planning goes a long way. If childcare's about to happen, do some advanced visiting. Meet the carers, get to know them together, and build up trust. This will make the separation easier for you both. When it comes to dropping off, start with shorter times away, allowing your child to build up some confidence that the environment is good for them and that you will return. Remember, this is a big period in your child's life. So try not to make any other huge changes, and take one thing at a time.
  6. Be honest – building trust with your child is essential. So don't avoid dealing with your baby's distress. Be open about where you're going – even it it's one room over. And when you say goodbye, give them a cuddle and a clear message about your return.
  7. Be playful – you can practice separation through games like peek-a-boo or hide and seek, repeatedly reading books, and setting up routines. Use your instincts and develop your own special rituals. Ultimately, it's about creating secure expectations your child can look forward to.
  8. Provide comfort – soft toys and blankets can be used as 'transitional objects'. They give your child a sense of comfort and something to hold on to when you're not there.
  9. Don't stay away – your child depends on you for all aspects of their wellbeing. So if possible, try to avoid prolonged, even overnight, separations until your child is around three. Researchers have found that this can create a level of stress that can overwhelm them.
  10. Be present – one-on-one time with your child is important. When you're with them, really try and connect. Not only does this let them know you're there, it gives them something to think about when you're apart.
  11. Reconnect – it's natural for your child to want to spend time with you after being separated. Don't shy away from this. Factor in some uninterrupted time with them for cuddles, stories, or listening to music – whatever makes you happy. Reuniting is a big part of building trust and easing separation anxiety.
  12. Read the cues – if your child has special needs, they may have different needs around separation, as may a shy or easily overwhelmed child. It's about getting to know who they really are and what works for them. So learn to read their cues and trust your instincts. After all, they're your instruction manual, and will help you become the best parent you can be.

Some deeper reading

An overview article with practical suggestions from the Neufeld Institute: http://neufeldinstitute.com/blog/2015/02/separation-anxiety-when-saying-good-bye-is-hard/

An article from Zero to Three on planning for an upcoming separation: http://www.zerotothree.org/child-development/social-emotional-development/qa/my-baby-is-9-months-old-and-i.html

An article from National Public Radio USA for parents struggling with anxiety and want to prevent it in their children: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/09/25/443444964/parents-can-learn-how-to-prevent-anxiety-in-their-children

An informative book: The Emotional Life of the Toddler (Free Press, 1995), Alicia Lieberman, PhD

Great children's books for repeated reading include: Owl Babies (Martin Waddell), Llama Llama Misses Mama (Ann Dewdney) and The Kissing Hand (Audrey Penn)