Separation Anxiety in early childhood is a normal developmental stage. During infancy, children are becoming familiar with their parents and their home environment. They become comfortable with their caregivers and learn what to expect from them. Around 8-14 months children start becoming uncomfortable and fearful around situations and people that are unfamiliar. Separation from their parents during this stage of development can make children feel threatened and unsafe. During times of separation children may express distress. They may cling to you, cry, and refuse to separate from you. These feelings typically subside around 2 years of age. At this time children have learned that their parents will return later. To help children to move through this stage successfully, children need to learn to feel safe in their environment, trust people other than their caregivers and trust that their caregivers will return. Separation anxiety can return during periods of stress, including the loss of a loved one or a loved pet, changing classrooms or changing schools, or moving to a new home.
Despite the trust gained and maintained in first stages of development, entering into the preschool setting may be the first time trust is being tested outside the safe and secure home environment. The child may feel uncertain if and how their needs will be met as they explore this uncharted territory.
Ways to deal with separation anxiety:
- Establish consistent routines
- Practice separation
- Develop a goodbye ritual
- Work with the school and the teacher to make transitions successful
- Use transitional objects (pictures of you, something special that reminds your child of you, a favorite blanket or a favorite toy)
- Do not prolong the time you spend leaving your child
- Do not sneak away from your child
- Check in with how you are feeling. Your child will pick up on your ambivalence and anxiety.
When to be concerned about and seek mental health support for separation anxiety:
- When the fear/anxiety does not go away or your child is over 6 years old
- Your child exhibits extreme distress when separated from you
- Your children exhibits reluctance to go to school or other places due to fear of being separated from you
- Reluctance or refusal to go to sleep without you or another primary caregiver close by