5 Ways To Help Your Kid’s Separation Anxiety
How to help calm both your child and yourself down.
The first time your child cried when you left them—be it with another caregiver or you simply exited the room—it may have touched your heart that they missed you so much. But, if they start wailing every time you leave them, there may be something else going on: separation anxiety. We all experience anxiety at some point, and separation anxiety in children comes with the growing up territory, especially in their early years.
Kids have varying levels of clinginess, and almost all 18-month to 3-year olds have separation anxiety to some extent. However, if your child’s symptoms are severe, such as full-blown tantrums every time you leave, and they last for a month or more, it can disrupt both of your lives—leaving each of you feeling like toddler separation anxiety hostages. And, although most separation anxiety in babies and children is a phase they leave in the dust by the time they’re 4 or so, it can continue into their school years and even adulthood.
So, arm yourself with some knowledge and read on to learn more about this common disrupter, including what some separation anxiety causes are and tips on how to deal with separation anxiety.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Your kid is used to having you around. When you leave, they may be worried or scared about being apart. The level of these concerns can vary widely child to child, and separation anxiety can be short-lived or ongoing. But keep in mind that it’s a normal stage of development, especially for babies and toddlers. The majority of kids grow out of it by the time they’re 3—the ones that don’t are rare. That said, if you’re concerned about your child not progressing as they should, speak to your pediatrician.
Sometimes, however, separation anxiety can manifest as something a bit more serious, known as separation anxiety disorder, which can pop up when they’re about preschool-aged, around three or four years old. It involves intense, prolonged fear or worry that interferes with a kid’s daily life. Signs of separation anxiety disorder include incessant worrying that something will happen to you or them, or a close caregiver, refusing to be away from you or your home, and nightmares or night terrors about being separated from loved ones. Physical symptoms may also arise, such as headaches or tummy aches, when they are separated.
Mommy Pro Tip: Learn how to tell the difference between stress-induced belly issues and regular ones here.
If your little tyke shows signs of separation anxiety disorder, definitely speak to your pediatrician. It usually doesn’t go away like normal separation anxiety and can lead to an anxiety or panic disorder for years to come. Fortunately, a full-blown separation anxiety disorder is rare, occurring in about just 1-4% of kids.
Why Do Children Have Separation Anxiety?
When your child is between the ages of 4 and 7 months, they develop what’s known as object permanence. This means they begin to understand that people and objects exist, even when they can’t see them; beforehand, it was out of sight, out of mind. (Coincidentally, this is also around the time they start to throw or drop things repeatedly, purposely for you to pick up. Fun, fun!) With separation anxiety, this new knowledge that a world exists outside of their line of sight, coupled with the fact that they have yet to grasp the concept of time, can lead them to worry when you’ll be back—or if they'll ever see you again. Even if you’re just in another room, to your kid, you may as well have gone poof!
Your baby’s developing object permanence is also why you completely blow their mind when you play peek-a-boo with them. You disappear and reappear like magic! If you’ve ever seen anyone play peek-a-boo with a baby, you may be familiar with the infant’s adorable expression when the person covers their face—a furrowed brow and a What in the world? look—followed by pure exhilaration when they see the person’s face again. Gets us every time!
Some kids sail through infanthood fine, but get hit with separation anxiety as toddlers, at around 15 to 18 months. This is because, as they gain a little more independence crawling or walking, they’re more aware of their surroundings—including your comings and goings. And, when they meltdown as you try to leave, it can be harder to reel them back in and calm them down. By the time they’re about 3 years old, their powers of manipulation start to kick in. By then, they’re on to how their behavior affects yours. Although your departure may still stress them out, they may dial up the dramatics to try and get you to stay. Clever little stinkers!
Of course, there are some factors that could put your child at a higher risk of developing separation anxiety. The first is quite obvious, but worth mentioning: If your child accidentally got lost at some point, whether the grocery store or the mall, for example, that separation could leave an emotional mark. Stress or trauma can be to blame too. Ditto if there’s a family history of anxiety disorders, which can be inherited. Certain temperaments are also more prone to separation anxiety, like children who are shy or afraid of unfamiliar situations.
Also, keep in mind that your kid’s separation anxiety may be amplified if they're tired, hungry, or not feeling well. So, make sure they’re well-fed and have plenty of sleep before you go on your way. If gassiness is what’s making them feel off, try our dye-free or original Infants’ Mylicon Gas Relief Drops. They’ll quickly break up bothersome gas bubbles to help your child naturally expel them, and the active ingredient is never absorbed into their system. They’re safe for babies of all ages—even the newest of newborns—as well as kids ages 2 and up. Just follow the dosage instructions on the package.
If other belly issues are making them feel unwell, try Children’s Mylicon Multi-Symptom Tummy Relief chewable tablets. They work fast to soothe multiple causes of discomfort in addition to gas, such as indigestion and uncomfortableness from overeating.
What Are The Stages of Separation Anxiety?
According to the Bowlby-Ainsworth Model of Attachment, developed in 1969, there are three phases of separation anxiety that kids go through when it’s left unchecked: protest, despair, and detachment. Protest, as you can imagine, is when your child gets upset after you leave—for a few hours or even a week or more. They may cry loudly or even throw a bit of a tantrum. And they’ll be on high alert for your return.
The next two stages are progressively more serious, but with proper intervention, they can likely be avoided altogether. In the despair phase, they may only cry once in a while, and instead exhibit helplessness and seem withdrawn. Since they’ve quieted down, it could appear as if they’re no longer dealing with separation anxiety. But, in fact, they are somewhat disheartened. The last phase, detachment, can also be misleading. In it, they’re more interested in their surroundings, and may even smile and be sociable. However, when you return, they’re distant and not interested. If you’re concerned that separation anxiety is getting the better of your child, talk to your pediatrician as soon as you can to help stop it in its tracks. The faster it’s diagnosed, the faster it can start being treated.
Fortunately, there are also things you can do on your own to help your little one’s separation anxiety before it advances to more concerning phases. The goal is to stop things from progressing past their initial protest, and ultimately develop a healthy response to your absence. The faster you intervene, the faster you can help your child. Keep reading to learn how.
How Can I Help My Child With Separation Anxiety?
While there’s no surefire way to prevent separation anxiety or separation anxiety disorder, there are some tips and tricks that may help both you and your child. First of all, don’t give into it or throw your plans out the window. The solution lies in being consistent, communicative, and doing your best to get back to your child when promised. Once you start preparing for it and making fast transitions, they will have time to adjust.
Most importantly, don’t beat yourself up. Be kind to yourself. Remember what we said at the beginning? Separation anxiety is a common, normal phase of child development. Plus, put on your rose-colored glasses for a minute: Although it makes things challenging for both you and your kid, separation anxiety is a sign of the strength of your strong bond!
Consistency is key: As with any healthy undertaking, you have to be consistent to see any benefits. Try to leave or drop them off at the same time, ditto with coming back or picking them up, and create a routine of it. This will not only help them anticipate and adjust to it, coming back at the expected time will help build your child’s independence and faith in your return.
Say quick, but loving goodbyes: However you say adieu to your little one, keep it as brief as you can. Give them your full attention, love, and affection, and reassure them of your return. The longer you linger, the harder it is for them to say goodbye.
Describe time in a way they can understand: If your infant or toddler can tell time, we’re impressed! But, they likely haven’t gotten there quite yet. So, instead of saying that you’ll be back at 1 o’clock, tell them you’ll be back after one of their favorite shows that are on around that time. If you’ll be away for a few days, say you’ll be back after three nighty-nites.
Keep your word: If you tell them you’ll be back after Dora the Explorer, do everything you can to make that happen. And resist the urge to check-in on them during the time you said you’d be gone—that will only confuse and upset them. Reuniting when you say you will can help build trust with your kid, as well as foster their confidence when it comes to being without you.
Do practice runs: Try having a close family member or friend they like babysit before you attempt hiring a babysitter or childcare provider who is unfamiliar to your child. If they’re going to start preschool or daycare, before they do, arrange to take them into the building to get them used to their surroundings and what to expect, then rehearse both of your quick good-byes. It may make it less jarring for them when the time comes to do the real thing. Surprises aren’t for everyone.
What Can I Do To Help With My Separation Anxiety?
Before you leave us this time, know we didn’t forget about you. Both moms and dads can get separation anxiety too—maybe even more than their kid! Here are a few tips to help you too.
Acknowledge your feelings: Ever hear the expression “admitting it is half the battle”? It’s totally true. Recognize how and why you’re feeling the way you are. Denying it helps no one.
Share them with other parents: It can help, and even be cathartic, to commiserate with people who know what you’re going through. Many parents experience separation anxiety, and they may even appreciate the mutual venting session and support. And, they may have ideas to share of things that have helped them cope.
Stay busy: If it’s not you who is leaving to run errands, work, or have a night out, find and schedule some fun things to do, like hanging out with friends, seeing a movie, or taking that art class you always wanted try. Finding “me” time as a mommy is hard. So, try and relish it. You deserve it!
Have a fragrant keepsake of your kid: It may sound silly, but, trust us, it may calm your nerves. If you’re out and about, hang on to a piece of clothing with your child’s scent on it. Your sense of smell is the strongest one of your senses to trigger memories. So, smelling your kid on something can help you feel less distant from them. Of course, if you’re at home and they’re away, you can likely pick their scent up in their room, closet, or by laying down in their bed.
As far as something you shouldn’t do . . . It’s not wise to share your feelings of anxiety with your kid. Anxiety is contagious—so it might make your child’s worse, and even lead to panic. Some things are best kept silent. It’s perfectly fine to tell them that you miss them, but going overboard can actually make them feel guilty and worse in the long run. If you’re struggling with separation anxiety, it’s helpful to speak to a professional. Just remember: There’s no need to feel embarrassed or weak. You are far from alone!
Next: Thinking of going back to work? Help smooth the transition with our 10 tips.