Separation anxiety occurs when a child becomes stressed when separated from a primary caregiver. According to the National Institutes of Health, separation anxiety occurs most commonly with the mother. This situation is stressful for both parent and child, but it is important to know that it is a normal phase of development that nearly all children go through. There are ways you can help your child cope and ease his or her fears. However, long-term separation anxiety may be indicative of a health disorder and should be checked out by a doctor right away.
Separation Anxiety and Infants
Parents often feel anxious about leaving their infants with other caregivers. When your baby is under six months old, the chances of separation anxiety are rare.
When your baby is between four and seven months old, he or she will start to understand the concept of object permanence. That is, your baby will recognize that people and things continue to exist even when they are not visible. However, babies usually don’t understand time, which means they can’t recognize that when you leave you will come back. When you disappear for any amount of time, even a few seconds, your baby thinks you have left and may become upset. This is the beginning of separation anxiety.
Separation Anxiety and Toddlers
According to the Nemours Center for Children’s Health Media, separation anxiety tends to appear between eight and 12 months of age (KidsHealth). At this point in your baby’s life, he or she has become familiar with family members, regular caregivers, and the home environment, and knows these to be safe. New people and places are often frightening. Separating from the familiarity of a parent in these situations causes anxiety.
To relieve this anxiety and to try to prevent you from leaving, your baby might:
- cling to you
- resist attention from others
Managing Separation Anxiety
How long separation anxiety lasts varies by child. The National Institutes of Health report that children usually overcome separation anxiety around age two (NIH). However, some toddlers go through this stage later. Separation anxiety may also occur between 18 and 30 months of age. Some children never experience it (KidsHealth).
As your infant transitions into the toddler years (ages one to three), he or she will begin to understand the concept of time and start to remember that you come back. The duration also depends on how parents respond.
It is important that you don’t give in every time your child cries. This is because he or she will figure out that this method gets results and use it in the future to prevent separation.
Toddlers slowly overcome separation anxiety over time. It is helpful to expose your child to other caregivers to help them learn to trust other people. The anxiety will taper off once your child learns to trust other adults and understands that you will always come back. To make things easier, you should establish some consistency. If your toddler is in daycare, for example, try to arrive for pickup at the same time every day.
Also remember to talk to your toddler about concepts of time in ways he or she can understand. For example, tell him or her you’re coming back after snack time, instead of stating a certain amount of hours. Following through with your promises will also reduce the longevity of separation anxiety.
Separation Anxiety and Children
In some cases, this type of anxiety may persist through childhood. It is common during elementary and middle school, when children are going through adjustments and encountering new challenges. School can increase your child’s anxiety, and he or she may not want to go.
At this stage, separation anxiety may only be temporary. It can occur if there have been changes at home or in school, such as a new schedule, a move, or the death of a family pet or relative. Patience is the key in such cases, and the anxiety tends to resolve over time.
However, persistent separation anxiety in school-age children may be indicative of a health disorder. Your child may display the following symptoms:
- insecurity, especially when alone
- sleeping difficulties
- frequent nightmares
- desire not to go to school
- follow parents around house
- excessive worries about physical harm
- physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches
Medical treatment isn’t usually necessary for children, especially those under the age of two. However, cases of severe anxiety may require a combination of treatments to reduce your child’s stress. Your doctor may recommend:
- antianxiety medications
- family counseling
- family classes
- new parenting techniques
Separation anxiety generally starts to ease after the age of two in most children. Anxiety is common during times of stress, but severe problems throughout childhood may be indicative of an anxiety disorder. Such disorders may get better with age, but they are also treatable when detected early. Talk to your doctor if you suspect your child has an anxiety disorder.