Whether your little one cries or clings or both, learn how to identify signs of separation anxiety and to soothe it.
By Mali Anderson
For some toddlers, goodbyes are full of tears, screams, and outbursts. Young children form tight relationships with their parents, so it’s natural that as a child grows, she’ll be hesitant to let go of feelings of familiarity and security. Learn more about separation anxiety to ease your little one.
Why Do Toddlers Experience Separation Anxiety?
Children go through feelings of separation anxiety for different reasons, but on a basic level, they believe their survival is dependent on having a primary caregiver close by. Toddlers are also still too young to understand the concept of time. Leaving them in a room for a few minutes or with a babysitter or at day care for a few hours feels like the same amount of time for them. So instead of sneaking off, which a toddler can interpret as leaving forever, be sure to say adieu, but keep the parting simple and short. Try to convey that the time apart is temporary and is not a cause for alarm. Also, “somewhat ironically, anxiety can be a sign of the child’s increasing autonomy,” says Miranda Goodman-Wilson, assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. “They have their own opinion on the situation — that Mom shouldn’t leave — and want to exert control.”
What Are the Signs of Separation Anxiety?
Erin Boyd-Soisson, Ph.D., associate professor of human development at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania says separation anxiety is “typically most prevalent between 8 and 18 months or so.” Indications of separation anxiety are usually present while a caregiver is departing or has left. Children may cling, throw a tantrum, or resist other caregivers in an attempt to convince the parent not to leave, whether for work or to run an errand. A child can also show signs of fear and restlessness when a parent is in another room, when he’s left alone at bedtime, or is being dropped off at day care. The outbursts usually subside once the caregiver is out of view. “This anxiety serves to keep the child close to the caregiver, who is their source of love and safety,” Dr. Boyd-Soisson says.
Will All Children Outgrow Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety decreases as a child ages, but similar feelings may return for short periods of time, for other reasons. “When older toddlers or preschoolers are sick or stressed, separation anxiety can be triggered again,” Dr. Boyd-Soisson says. “For example, most 2-year-olds who have been in day care for a while are often fine when their parents leave. However, when they are starting to get sick, or if they are under stress, it is not uncommon for them to cling to their parents at drop-off.” Despite this, rest assured this behavior is a normal part of development and will disappear over time. Every child is unique and there is no set time frame for when separation anxiety appears or disappears. It may even take a few months for a child’s anxiety to dissipate, so be prepared for regression, especially when routines change because of vacation, illness, or a move.
How Can You Ease Separation Anxiety?
Although it may be difficult to hear a child cry, remember that separation anxiety does have a positive aspect: It indicates that a healthy attachment has bonded a caregiver and child. Try talking a child through the process of leaving; tell him that you love him and let him know you will return. If it helps, offer him a favorite stuffed animal as a soother in your absence. Keeping a regular routine can help children develop a feeling of control over daily situations. Say “See you later, alligator” or share a secret handshake as a clear and consistent indicator when saying goodbye.
When Should You Worry About Separation Anxiety?
Watch your child to see if her separation anxiety appears extreme, says Julia F. Heberle, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. Dr. Heberle recommends analyzing the situation surrounding your child’s feelings. Is there parental conflict, divorce, or something wrong with the child-care setting? If so, the symptoms of separation anxiety may be amplified. If a toddler is showing excessive symptoms, such as vomiting or unrelenting worry, contact your pediatrician.