Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Kids

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Little boy embrased his mother. Shyness, fears, anxiety. Hyper-attachment to mother.

Don’t fret mama, dealing with separation anxiety is completely normal and varies between children. Infants may become inconsolable when mom steps out of the room. However, toddlers and preschoolers can demonstrate that anxiety for a little bit longer. 

Twin Cities Kids Club is here with ways to diminish the separation anxiety. Join the club today!

A child lying on the ground trying to hold on to her mothers legs desoerate for attention.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety refers to excessive fear or worries about separation from home or an attachment figure.

However, separation anxiety is a normal phase in a child’s development. It helps children understand their relationships and master their environment. The fear may end around two years old, once your toddler begins to understand that a parent may have left for right now, but they will return later. 

A sad little girl hugging her parent to feel safe, tearful.

A Note to Working Parents

The best way to mitigate separation anxiety is with preparation, quick transitions, and transforming the way you convey time. Your heart will ache, but separation anxiety is like pulling off a band-aid. 

The longer you take to peel that bandaid, the more torturous it can be. Quick is always best; you feel the pain for a shorter amount of time. 

You know what it looks like, the clinging to your leg and the meltdown mode. Pleads for mom not to go and outstretched arms. We have all been there, mama, it’s normal. You’re doing the right thing, and these actions are signs of meaningful attachment. 

Married couple and little daughter in hallway at home. Sad unhappy father hugs small daughter. Parents divorcing, break up, child stay with mother, dad leave with suitcase. Discord in family concept

Separation Anxiety by Age

Infants

Separation anxiety can develop in infants once they start to grasp the concept of object permanence. Object permanence starts to develop around 7 to 8 months old. Once your infant realizes that you are gone, it may leave them unsettled. 

Leaving while your infant is hungry, sleepy, or feeling unwell can make the reaction to the separation even worse. It’s best to keep any transitions short and stick to routines if they’re having a tough day. 

Toddlers

Some children will skip separation anxiety in their infancy and will start to display signs of it at 15 to 18 months. During this stage, the separations can be more difficult when your child is hungry, tired, or sick- so, most of the toddler-hood. 

As toddlers gain more of their independence, they can become more aware of separations. Their reactions to separations are much more loud, tearful, and quite difficult to stop. 

Preschoolers

Once your child reaches the age of 3, they understand the effect that their tearful pleas and anxiety of separation have. This does not diminish their feelings of distress, but they are hoping to change the outcome. 

When this happens, it is crucial to stay consistent. Do not change course because of their pleas, or cancel your plans based on separation anxiety. Due diligence, effective communication, and consistency in return times will pay off in the long run.   

Check out our tips for successful preschool drop offs.

girl cuddling stuffed animal

How to Deal with Separation Anxiety 

Make your ‘good-byes’ short. Even if you have to do the rapid-fire kisses by the cubby. Leave them with a favorite blankie or stuffy that will help them get through the day. The mission is to get them in, get them dropped off, and then get outta there. The longer you draw out your good-byes, the longer and more intense your child’s anxiety will be.  

Remain consistent. Try to maintain the same drop-off routine with the same rituals at the same time each day. Doing this will help you avoid any unexpected elements. Establishing a routine can minimize anxiety and helps your child build their independence and while gaining their trust in you. 

Provide Undivided Attention. When you’re separating, extend the courtesy of giving your child your undivided attention. Affirm them that they are going to be okay, and be loving and affectionate. Then say your short good-byes, ignoring their pleas and antics to try to get you to stay. 

Keep your promises. The biggest mistake you can make is to tell your child that you will be back at a certain time, but return before that time. For example, if they had a particularly hard morning and were extra anxious. Then you decide after an hour to go back to check on them to make sure everything is alright. 

The process will start all over again, and this time when you leave, it will be much worse than before. When you keep your promise of coming back at a certain time, your child will gain the confidence and independence needed to overcome their separation anxiety. 

Use specifics they easily understand. When you discuss the time you plan to return, use specifics that your child easily understands. If you plan to return by noon, use details they can follow. For example, you can tell them, “I’ll be back just in time for lunch.” 

Try to define time in ways they can understand. Talk about long trips in terms of “sleeps.” Try saying, “Daddy will be home in 2 sleeps,” versus “daddy will be home in two days.” 

Practice being separated. You don’t have to be separated very long. Send them to their grandparents for the afternoon, pencil in a playdate, or reach out to friends and family to provide care. You can schedule any of these for an hour on the weekend. 

Just be sure to practice your good-bye routine before you enroll your child into a daycare or school program. Doing this will allow both you and your child to prepare. They will also be allowed to experience things without you and enable them to thrive in your absence.

son being left at school

Thankfully it is rare for separation anxiety to persist on a daily basis past the preschool years. However, if you find you tried everything you can think of and your child is still struggling to adapt, contact your pediatrician.

Your pediatrician has definitely helped other families in the same capacity and will help to settle your uneasiness and come up with a plan to support you both. 

Don’t fret when the mornings are hard. In most cases, this will pass. If it’s an extra rough day, order a food in, have a movie night, and enjoy those cuddles.

Sign up for a Twin Cities Kids Club FREE membership card. This card gives you access to free local events and exclusive discounts. Follow our blog for more parenting tips.

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