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Separation anxiety

separation; anxiety; safe; scary; attached; clingy; bedtime; hospital; day; care; preschool; starting; goodbye; comforter; emotion ;

Separation anxiety is when a child gets upset when separated from a parent or loved carer. For example, a young child may become distressed when left with a baby sitter, or when put to bed by herself.

Separation anxiety is normal during early childhood.

Contents

Separation anxiety is normal during early childhood. It usually starts at about six to eight months of age and lasts until about two and a half to four years of age. Sometimes it can last longer if the child has had any painful separations in the early years. Separation anxiety reflects the child's attempts to hold on to what is safe in a very scary world, and it will settle down as the child grows older and more confident.

What is separation anxiety?

  • Infants during the first few months of life become attached to their main carer or carers (usually their parents). This is because they learn that their carer can provide love, attention, comfort and nourishment.
  • A child generally starts worrying about being away from carers when he is old enough to know that he is a separate individual from his parents, that there are special people in his life who look after him, and when he can clearly recognise the difference between family members and strangers.
  • Knowing that the special person(s) is near helps the child to feel safe as he takes his first steps into a big and scary world.
  • When the child's special person is not there, the child becomes upset – often this brings the parent or carer back, and the child feels safe again.
  • If a pattern is established where the special person always comes back after small separations, the child eventually learns that the world is a safe place, and he is able to be happy when the special people aren't there.
  • The separations need to be very short at first, because the child does not understand that their special person will be coming back. It takes a long time – years – for the child to feel safe when the special person is not there.

Bedtime

  • From about 6 months of age, children may get upset at bedtime, or even when the parent leaves the room – these are separations.
  • Children don’t yet understand that their parents may still be close by when they cannot see them.
  • A child may try to follow the parent to keep her or him in sight, and can get very "clingy". It is best to comfort and resettle your baby than letting them cry.
  • This behaviour may get worse until the child is about fifteen to eighteen months old, and then gradually goes away as the child becomes more confident.
  • See our topic Sleep in early childhood for more ideas about managing distress at bedtime.

Staying with others

  • Babies can become attached to more than one special person, and this is healthy for them because they have more "safe" people to rely on.
    • However if there are a lot of people sharing the baby's care, this can be very difficult for the baby. A baby in day care, for example, will find it much less stressful to become attached to one or two carers only. Having many carers should be avoided. See our topic Choosing child care.
  • Usually it takes until children are three or four years old for them to feel safe even for a short time when they are away from people they know and trust.
    • This means that toddlers may often become distressed on separation from parents and carers when being dropped off at child care centres. However, this distress is often short-lived, and many children do thrive in the safe environment of a child care centre.
  • Children may be upset at the time that a parent leaves them, be relaxed and happy with the person caring for them, then upset again when the parent returns and they 'remember' that they were left. This is not 'manipulative' – it is normal child development, and shows that the child still does not feel really comfortable when the parent is not there, but is learning how to manage.
  • By the time children commence kindergarten (at around four years of age) or school (five or six years), they will be better able to manage an extended period of time without having a parent or special carer around, although some children will have difficulty with this even have at four or five years. See our topic Starting school.
  • Some young children do not show any distress on separation. This may be because they do feel safe (some are more easy-going than others; some have already learnt that they are safe and their parents will always come back), or it may be because they have learnt that getting upset does not bring their trusted person back, and they have given up.

Other times when children are likely to be anxious

Because very young children don't have an understanding of time and distance, even small separations can be frightening. Some separation times which may be stressful are:

  • when a parent leaves the room
  • if the mother is going to hospital to have a baby
  • if the child goes to hospital
  • when the parents go out at night.

 

What parents can do

All children have to learn to deal with separations. It is part of learning about life. If the first separations are managed well, it helps children with the separations they will have to deal with all through their lives.

  • Always make sure that your child will be safe and well looked after at the place where you are leaving her, so that you can feel confident in assuring her that she will be fine.
    • If possible, help her get to know any new situation or carer while you are there. It can take some time for her to feel comfortable if she is very anxious – you may have to stay with her at child care or preschool until she feels safe to let you go.
    • If your baby or young child is going to child care, try to find a place where there will be only one or two people who will be her special carers and who will usually be there when she is there.
    • If you can, stay with your child until she gets to know her carer. If you show that you trust and like the carer, it will help your child to know that she is safe.
  • Always say goodbye, even if you have to go while she is upset. This builds trust. Sneaking out or trying to get away may make a child feel that you can't be trusted. Once you have said "goodbye" try not to drag out your departure as this is unlikely to be helpful.
  • When going out, try to leave the child with someone he knows and trusts.
  • Let him keep his comforter (dummy, teddy or blanket) if he has one.
  • Show that you understand his feelings, eg. "I know you wish I could stay. I wish I could stay with you too".
  • Let the child mind something of yours (such as a bag or keys) when you are not there.
  • Help him to know when you will be coming back. Tell him in ways he understands, eg. "after lunch".
  • Be reliable and always come back when you say you will. If for some reason you can’t get back on time, let the carer know, so that she will be able to tell your child what has happened.
  • Have lots of little practice separations, eg, play Peek-a-Boo and Hide and Seek (and make sure to be easy to find!). This helps the child learn that you always come back.
  • Read stories about separations. There are many children's stories on this topic, including fairy tales.
  • Sometimes if children are away from parents during the day they seem to want to make up time at night by staying up late. Try to give them extra time with you in the evenings.

Note: Sometimes when a child has been separated (eg. in childcare) and has seemed quite happy, his behaviour changes if his mother stays home with him again, eg. she leaves work to have another baby. The child may become clingy and seem to be going backwards. This is the child's way of working through the separation now that he has you there and feels safe. If he is allowed to cling he will move forward again when he is ready. Pushing children away or expecting them to grow up more quickly than they are ready to doesn't help.

Resources

Books for parents and children

There are many books written for children about separation, fears, starting school and other worries. Ask the librarian at your local library, and look in bookshops. Read the book first to see if it suits your child. If you find a book that your child wants to read many times, it may be worth buying the book, so that she can have it whenever she needs it.

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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