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A child who experiences feelings of anxiety when they are separated from their parent(s), is said to be suffering from separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a common psychological condition experienced by many children, especially between the ages of one and three years of age. Separation anxiety occurs as a normal part of development and typically does not last more than a few months.
Infants and babies up to around seven months of age give very little thought to who is providing their care as long as their needs are being met. Babies have have little concept of time – only the here and now. When mom or dad leaves the room or leaves the house, they only know that they have gone. Separation anxiety develops because the child hasn’t developed the psychological maturity to know that mom or dad will return again.
Not all children develop separation anxiety, but many do. For parents, this phase can be particularly difficult because it’s often filled with teary good-byes and tantrums. Children often react to and express their anxious feelings the only way they know how, which is to cry. There are several things parents can do to help their children overcome separation anxiety.
When dealing with separation anxiety, the one thing child development experts agree upon is a proper exit. As tempting as it may be to sneak away from your child when they are preoccupied with a toy or activity, it’s not the best exit strategy. Your child needs to be given a proper goodbye. While this may lead to tears, it’s best in the long run. Address your child at their level and tell them you are leaving and when you will be back.
Though children have little concept of time, they do respond to routines. Try to associate your return with a part of their day. Tell your child when you will be back, not in terms of time but rather activity. For instance, tell them you will be back after snack time or nap time. Give them a frame of reference they can understand and then follow through. As soon as your child realizes that you always return when you say you will, they will gradually begin to overcome their separation anxiety.
While saying goodbye is a courtesy you must extend to your child, do not make your goodbye long and drawn out. Lingering about to calm your child only teaches them that crying causes you to stay - it doesn't help them develop coping skills. You should also not reenter the room once you’ve made the proper exit. Otherwise, your child will learn that crying brings you back.
Other points to keep in mind when dealing with separation anxiety include your choice of childcare, frequency of separation, and previous routines. Try to avoid new childcare arrangements during this phase and make sure your child knows their caregiver well.
Sometimes life events, such as starting school, relocation, death of a family member, etc., can cause separation anxiety to develop in older children. Provide them with reassurance and consider practicing departures ahead of time. You might even consider creating a special routine or “secret” goodbye that will provide additional comfort to your child. An example can be found in the children’s book The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. Never undermine a child’s feelings by yelling or expressing frustration. With your help, your child should quickly learn to cope with their anxiety and realize that everything will be OK.
I believe separation anxiety also affects adults although it is commonly discussed in terms of children. In fact, I think a study found that some 7% of Americans are affected by Adult Separation Anxiety Disorder at some point in their lives. That same study found that 4% of American children experience separation anxiety.