Separation Anxiety: What it is and tips to help your child feel more at ease when separated from you
Updated: Jul 28, 2021
Do you feel like your child is glued to your leg right now and you cannot seem to catch a break or get anything done around the house? Then they may be going through a peak in separation anxiety. In this post, I will explain more about what it is exactly as well as some strategies to help ease some of the anxiety our children feel when we are separated from them.
Introduction to separation anxiety
Essentially, separation anxiety is the feelings of fear, discomfort, sadness, etc. that develop when a child is separated from their caregiver. It is based on that primal instinct to be with the ones who care for us as well as a not yet fully developed brain that is still in process of learning that when people leave, they will return.
When does it develop?
it develops in infancy as babies start to gain understanding of object permanence, which is an awareness that objects and people still exist even when they can’t be detected with the senses such as sight, hearing, etc.
the time at which this awareness develops differs for each baby but on average, may start around the 6 month mark but then heightens at different periods such as at 9 months, 12 months, 18 months and 24 months
the level to which each child experiences separation anxiety may be influenced by various factors such as their unique temperament, birth experiences (such as if they spent any time in the NICU, for example), how parent deals with and feels about separations, whether they are going through developmental leaps, etc.
General Strategies to help with separation anxiety at different stages
A. Tips during the infancy stage (6 months-12 months)
Offer them lots of contact and closeness to help them feel more secure during this time. This could look different for each baby but some examples are using contact or carrier naps, putting them in the carrier and/or keeping them close by to do daily tasks such as cleaning, cooking, etc., spending connected, distraction-free time with baby throughout the day.
Use games to help further their understanding that even when they can’t see you, you still exist and will return. An example of one such game is peekaboo (where you cover your face, then uncover it) to show them that even though they couldn’t see you, you were still there. Another one is leave and return (where you leave the room for a moment with baby in a safe space, and then return with a happy expression) to show them that if even if you leave them, you will return.
Call on your village when you need a break. Since peaks in separation anxiety can be extra demanding on the primary caregiver, it is important that others in your village such as your partner if you have one or other family members can help so you can have some self-care time. Even if it just a short break to watch your favourite show, go for a walk by yourself, have a relaxing bath, etc., it is important you take the time you need.
If you are going to be leaving baby, do all you can to make it as pleasant an experience as possible. Some ways to do this are: spend quality time together before you head out; leave them with a caregiver who they are used to and comfortable with; prepare them for the transition ahead of time and tell them when you will return (Ex. “After dinner tonight, Grandma will be coming over to watch you while Daddy and I go out for a bit. We will be back before bedtime.”); make sure you say goodbye before you leave instead of sneaking out to build trust and security; ensure the caretaker watching baby follows similar routines when you are gone to help baby feel more at ease.
B. Tips during the Toddler Stage (12 months- 3 years)
Show them you trust in their independence as much as possible. As toddler gains increased mobility and independence, you may see them wanting to explore their world and creating distance between you and them and then, returning back to you as their secure base. By allowing them to do so but also receiving them warmly upon their return, you can show them you trust in their independence but will also always be there to support them when needed.
Support their emotions with regards to separation anxiety, but try to avoid giving in and not leaving. Toddlerhood is a phase where a stronger sense of self is developing which may mean more rebellion against things the child doesn’t want to do, which could include being separated from you. While you can demonstrate understanding of the emotions they are feeling about the imminent separation (ex. “I know how hard this is for you. I’m here for you and I love you.”), it doesn’t mean you need to give in and not leave. In fact, your toddler will develop more resilience over time if they are supported through these emotions.
Give them ways to feel connected when you are separated. For example, if child is in daycare, you could send a picture of you to have in the classroom and/or other objects from home such as a blanket or a lovey. Also, before separating, you could focus on the next connection. So, for example, if you are doing daycare drop-off, you could talk about what you will do together at the end of the school day.
Recognize that bedtime represents a period of separation for the child. To help with this, you can do things to help them feel more connected before sleep. One way is to spend distraction-free one-on one time together such as by engaging in play, going for walk, eating a snack, etc. where you are purely focused on them. Another way to ease their anxiety around bedtime is similarly to when they are in daycare, put focus on the next connection. So, for example, you could make a plan for what you will do together the next day or tell them you will see them in your dreams.
In conclusion, even though it can be tiring and challenging, separation anxiety is actually a sign of normal child development as well as an indication of secure attachment. You are doing an amazing job by responding to your child’s needs and continuing to show them they can depend on you.