So, you dropped your child off at daycare or preschool this morning on your way to work, and it was a little more difficult than you expected. Maybe your baby became hysterical when you walked away. Maybe your toddler burst into tears. What’s a parent to do?
Understanding separation anxiety
Although often distressing for parents, separation anxiety is a normal stage of development for young children. It manifests differently for every child, but in general, here’s what’s going on in your child’s brain during different developmental phases.
- Infants: In infants, separation anxiety develops after a child gains an understanding of something called object permanence. This is when your infant realizes that you’re really gone when you’re gone. Most babies develop separation anxiety around 9 months, but it can happen as early as 4-5 months.
- Toddlers: Toddlers may become even more aware of separations around 15 or 18 months of age as they begin to develop more independence. Their behaviors at separations may be loud, tearful and difficult to stop.
- Preschoolers: Preschoolers face the challenge of not only being apart from their parents but also having to adjust to a new environment. By age three, most children understand how their anxiety or outbursts at separation will impact their parents and may use these pleas to get you to come back to them.
6 ways to ease separation anxiety
One strategy to help your child deal with separation anxiety is developing a routine to help your child anticipate when you leave and when you come back. Keeping a consistent routine and following through with promises not only builds trust between you and your child, but also allows them to build confidence in their ability to be without you.
Here are a few tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics for surviving separation anxiety:
- Create quick goodbye rituals.
- Be consistent with drop-off and pick-up rituals.
- Give your child full attention and some affection, then say a quick goodbye.
- Keep your promises.
- Be specific, child style. For example, say, “I’ll be home after 3 sleeps.” Or “I’ll be back after nap time.”
- Practice being apart with playdates, going to grandma’s house, etc.
Will my child outgrow separation anxiety?
Young children often experience a period of separation anxiety, but most outgrow it by about three years of age.
Separation anxiety as a true disorder is diagnosed when a child’s symptoms are excessive for their developmental age and cause significant distress in daily functioning. If you have concerns about a major change in your child’s behavior, mood, sleep and/or appetite, it’s best to notify your child’s pediatrician to get an evaluation.
Bottom line: Parents, don’t stress
Parents, if your toddler or young child is struggling with separation anxiety, don’t panic. For many children, this is a normal and healthy part of growing up. But remember, your pediatrician is always here to help you and your child cope with these transitions in a healthy way.