One of the common questions I get about young children is how much separation anxiety is normal?
Many children go through periods of separation anxiety. It’s a typical part of development. As babies, this often happens around 8-9 months or so. Babies are learning object permanence at this age (the idea that objects and people continue to exist when they have left their sight) and are becoming aware that mom or dad has left them!
Separation anxiety tends to peak again around age 2, although it can happen at any age. It’s pretty typical for separation anxiety to occur at points of transition or change, such as starting a new grade or school, even for older children.
It’s very normal for young children to cry when being dropped off at daycare, for example. Transitions get particularly challenging for 2-3 year olds, so they may cry for a moment but will likely calm down once the parent has left. This is not a concern in a healthy parent-child relationship.
So what’s NOT normal? What are the signs that your child has more severe separation anxiety that might be cause for concern?
- Prolonged, inconsolable crying or physical symptoms. If your child is NOT calming down or doesn’t seem to be able to be soothed by another trusted adult, or is getting so upset they are vomiting or having other physical symptoms this could indicate a problem.
- Recent trauma or fear that may be triggering the anxiety. If your young child experienced a recent death of someone close to them, a scary experience in which a parent was not present, or other trauma, they may be genuinely afraid and need some reassurance that mom or dad will not abandon them, will not die or have anything happen to them.
- Difficulty sleeping due to the anxiety. If separation anxiety is affecting your child’s sleep or they can’t sleep due to worrying what might happen, it may indicate a problem.
- Excessive fear of death or separation. If the child is expressing worry that the parent will abandon them, die, or be harmed in an accident or disaster (and this is not explained as a reaction to a traumatic event actually happening), it could be a sign of concern and it is worth looking into why your child might be having these fears.
If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, how do you help them through it?
If your child is exhibiting signs of the more severe separation anxiety listed above, you may want to seek professional help or seek to find out the cause of the anxiety.
For more typical separation anxiety, make a plan for how to manage goodbyes and separations. For young children, this may be a short routine and goodbye. However tempting, do not “sneak out” to avoid upsetting your child. It will likely only cause further upset down the road when they realize that mom or dad might leave suddenly without letting them know what’s happening. Also avoid prolonging the goodbye or expressing your own anxiety about leaving them. Children tend to follow their parents’ emotional cues. If you seem confident in their caregivers and in leaving them, children will be more likely to feel confident. If you seem nervous and anxious, your child will likely pick up on that. From the child’s perspective, if mom or dad is nervous about leaving me here, shouldn’t I be nervous too?
I love Daniel Tiger as an awesome resource for teaching social emotional skills, and there is a fantastic Daniel Tiger song called “Grown Ups Come Back” that may help your child feel more secure about separations.
Also know that this is temporary! For most children, it’s a phase. You and your child will get through it!