Check out the PedsDocTalk YouTube Video: Separation Anxiety in Children for more information and guidance, including when separation anxiety is most common, what it looks like, more tips and tricks to manage this behavior, and when to speak to a professional.
Separation anxiety is common between 9 and 18 months and can peak throughout the toddler and preschool years. It is often triggered by periods of change, such as starting daycare or school. Toddlers thrive on consistency, are learning autonomy, and often desire control – this developmental stage makes change difficult. Some children accept and adapt to change more quickly than others. Most of us have experienced separation anxiety with our children at some point, whether they cry hysterically when you put them down, scream when you leave them at daycare, or are older and have trouble with drop-off at school. Here are some tips to remember when you need to help your child through separation anxiety.
Maintain consistency with a short and sweet goodbye
Be consistent and confident with your goodbye routine. For example, “I love you, I will see you after lunchtime!” You can explain to your child that you are dropping them off and will pick them up. It’s helpful to use a specific activity for when you pick them up rather than a time since this is often more tangible for younger children. Then, offer a hug and kiss goodbye. Avoid hesitating or lingering since this can make them question their safety. If you show that you are stressed or scared, your child will likely sense these feelings and can feel nervous about the situation.
Do not sneak out or skip the goodbye. Although this may work or seem easier initially – it does not help build resilience for their future. Continue with goodbyes since the goal is to teach them that they are safe, separation is normal, and you will return to them.
Empathize with your child
If your child is upset or crying, empathize and acknowledge their feelings. For example, “I see you’re sad, but Mommy will be back after naptime!” We understand their feelings are expected and valid – it’s not always easy to say goodbye to someone you love and will miss!
It’s not helpful to dismiss their feelings or pressure them. Avoid saying, “It’s okay. It’s not scary.” As an adult, this often isn’t comforting when we are scared. Their feelings are real and valid – acknowledge their feelings and reassure them that they are safe and you will return.
Stay calm when they meltdown
It’s okay to be sad when dropping them off at daycare or school, but recognize that they also look at how you respond. Try to be a calm, loving, and positive presence during separation so they will learn that this is safe and will see you again. Remember, your reaction is important because in moments of uncertainty, they are looking to you for your reaction and reassurance.
If you need to, cry alone in your car after dropping them off – we’ve all been there. Your feelings are valid, too.
Build in 1:1 time
We are often so busy, but even five to ten minutes of 1:1 quality time can help them with the separation. This helps to fill up their cup so that separating isn’t as scary. You can plan for quality time before and/or after separation.
Celebrate the reunion
When you are reunited with them, celebrate! For example, “Mommy is back and I missed you so much! You were so brave all day at school! I’m so proud of you!” Or, “Daddy is back and I missed you so much! You did great!”
Be positive and uplifting in the reunion so they begin to understand the pattern – my caregiver leaves, and I’m a little upset, but they come back and seem happy to see me.
The more you continue this pattern, the more they realize separations are okay.
A quick reminder for YOU
Separation anxiety is common – they love you and miss you! Every child is different, and some will experience longer separation phases than others. Have patience while your child learns that separation is normal and you will return. Be consistent in your approach to separation and reunions. Don’t forget to celebrate when you return to pick them up from childcare or school!
I tried these tips, but I have a more attached child. What can I do?
Try to ease them into short periods of separation. Practice being apart for a short duration and progressively lengthen the time apart.
Practice with play dates and other people. For children who have never been with other caregivers or children, warming them up with play dates with you around or visits to grandma with you there can ease them in.
When is it time to speak to a professional?
Consider speaking to your child’s clinician for the following:
- Symptoms persist into school-age years
- Symptoms cause consistent, significant distress or interfere with daily quality of life, such as going outside, to preschool, or other activities.
- Your child is experiencing extreme separation anxiety, and the childcare facility cannot manage it.
- You are concerned about other aspects of their development.
Separation anxiety is very common but should improve with time. If symptoms aren’t improving, your clinician may recommend other coping strategies or refer you to a child psychologist or therapist for further management.