Separation Anxiety in Young Kids: Expert Advice

November 12, 2017

I watched a poor mother try to leave her toddler in the child care area of the gym the other day. The toddler was screaming and hanging onto her leg, and the mom looked miserable. To help, I smiled at her and said, “It is hard, but I am sure he will be happy by the time you get a half mile in on that treadmill.” She peeked her head back in just a moment later (I know she couldn’t have run that fast!), and he was playing happily.

Watching that familiar situation unfold, brought me back to the feelings of dread I used to have as a young mom and the desperate promises of treats or fun when I returned trying to relieve my “Mommy Guilt”. The fact is that separation anxiety is a given in most children. Some children experience greater anxiety than others, and almost all parents feel just as bad if not worse than their screaming child when they leave. Separation anxiety often begins in infancy, peaks in the toddler years, and then hopefully decreases by the end of the preschool years. As a seasoned nurse and mother, I’m here to help. Here are some key things to know.

  • Infants will not start to show separation anxiety until they develop the concept of object permanence at about 9 months of age. Before that point, out of sight is out of mind for an infant.
  • Toddlers will usually experience separation anxiety, even if they did not seem to experience it as an infant. Separation anxiety will be at its peak between 18 and 24 months of age. Toddlers will typically express their dislike of separation very loudly.
  • Preschoolers will start to be able to handle separation a bit more easily. Some 3 and 4-year-olds will learn that their expression of discontent when parents leave will influence Mom and Dad, and often will manipulate parents when they find out it works.

Tips:

  • Always say good-bye. It is tempting to sneak out when your child is involved in an activity. This makes it easier on you, but harder on your child. Sneaking out can actually increase separation anxiety in a child. A child will start to become anxious every time he doesn’t see you fearing you have left. Always say good-bye but keep it short and sweet, the longer the good-bye, the greater the anxiety. Be sure that you give your child a hug, kiss and your total attention before leaving. Do not be multi-tasking as you say good-bye.
  • Tell your child you will return and give them a “time”. This means “kid time”. Tell them what time by what they will be doing. “I will be back after you sleep.” “I will be back after snack time.”
  • Separate often. That is the key to conquering separation anxiety. A child will learn that Mommy and Daddy leave, but they come back. Separation does not have to be long, but it needs to happen enough that your child can remember the last time. Sometimes that separation might simply be you leaving the room to complete a task, telling your child you will be “emptying the dishwasher and will be back”. This short separation helps “stretch” your child to be able to handle longer periods of time without you. If you are a stay-at-home-parent, you need to plan time away from your child. It is good for you and for your child. If your child is starting daycare or preschool, practice being away and leaving your child for periods of time.

Soon your child will learn that he or she can handle the world when Mom or Dad is not always in eye view; but that means you will have to learn that your child can handle the world without you too.

-- By Cindy Love MSN, CPNP
Indiana University Health

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