Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage experienced by nearly all children. It can affect babies, toddlers and even preschool-aged children. While it normally starts when they’re between 10 and 18 months old, it can last until age two and reappear during stressful times, like going to school.
One of the most troubling aspects of this stage is that it can happen almost overnight. While it’s definitely a stressful time for parents, it’s completely normal and even healthy. Overcoming separation anxiety is a good stepping stone for teaching your children how to be resilient.
Still, it’s not easy to leave your children when you know they’re upset.
If your child is experiencing separation anxiety, there are a few things you can do to help:
- Introduce them to other caregivers. By 6 months, your child should be exposed to different caregivers, like relatives or a babysitter. This will help lessen their anxiety of being away from you later on.
- Play games: Playing games like peek-a-boo or hide-n-seek can show your children that separation is temporary. They’ll start to understand that if you leave (or hide), you’ll always return.
- Say a quick goodbye: Prolonging your goodbye will only make your child’s anxiety worse. Give a quick hug and kiss, then walk out with a smile and a wave. Showing your confidence will reinforce theirs.
- Don’t turn around: Once you leave, don’t return if you hear them crying. This is perhaps the hardest part, but doing so will only show them that their tantrums will make you return (and potentially lead to worse tantrums later on!)
- Remind them that you’ll return: One of the biggest stressors and causes of separation anxiety in young children is the fear that once you leave, you won’t return. If your child begs you not to leave, remind them of another time when they were nervous for you to leave, but you returned. You can also give them a time to expect you back, like after snack time or when they wake up in the morning.
- Give them extra one-on-one time: This is especially important for children who are experiencing separation anxiety after welcoming a new sibling into the family. This extra time spent with them helps them feel confident in your love and less threatened that you’ll leave them.
If your child’s separation anxiety doesn’t ease up on its own after their preschool years, speak to your pediatrician or a child psychiatrist.