Separation anxiety.

Don’t leave me, Mummy!

Separation anxiety is a traumatic experience for everyone – you, your screaming tot and the carer you’ve left in charge. While it may be a normal part of your child’s development, that doesn’t make it any easier to cope with. Try our 6 tips to ease the separation pain – for everyone!

It’s wonderful that they love you so much they can’t bear being away from you. But when it’s time to head back to work, or maybe leave them with a sitter for a few hours, and they’re screaming, crying, holding on to your leg or running after you howling, it’s heartbreaking.

Many a parent has sat slumped in the car or the bus, defeated and worn out, after peeling a crying child off them, and leaving them at care or school. The experts call your child’s reaction “separation anxiety”. It can set in as early as 8 months and may wax and wane until school age and beyond.

But it’s important that children learn to separate from their parents. Apparently it’s one of life’s big lessons and it will pave the way to helping children deal with the separations they will face throughout their lives.

Here are some Tips to Easing the Inevitable Goodbyes

  • Acclimatise your toddler to the new carer : spend some time beforehand with your child getting to know the new carer or child care centre.
  • Don’t sneak out : Always say goodbye, even if you have to go while she/he is upset. This builds trust.
  • Home comforts : Let her keep her comforter (dummy, teddy or blanket) if she has one.
  • I’ll be back : Tell her when you’ll be back in ways she understands such as “after nap”.
  • Be reliable : Always come back when you say you will. If for some reason you can’t get back on time, let the carer know, so that she will be able to tell your child what has happened.
  • Talk about it : Even if you’re littlie isn’t really chatting yet, talk about what’s happening. There are also many books about separations.

When you get home, make some special time for you and your tot in which you’re not racing around doing housework or making dinner. If your child has to go into care or be left with a sitter again soon, you can remind them of the special time you’ll have together when you get home.

Separation and Independence

When will your baby know where you end and she begins? At birth she thinks she’s a part of you and doesn’t have a sense of herself as an individual (infants don’t even realise that the tiny hands and feet they see before them are their own). But over time, as she develops various physical, mental, and emotional skills and grows more confident, she’ll start to figure out that she’s her own person (with her own body, thoughts, and feelings) and she’ll increasingly want to do things her way.

When it Develops

A baby’s sense of individuality takes years to develop. At first she thinks you and she are one and the same. Then at around six months she’ll start to realise that she is separate from you, and that you can leave her alone. This is when the fear of abandonment known as separation anxiety usually begins. It can last well into the second year. But once your child becomes more social and more confident that you will, in fact, come back for her when you leave her at childcare or with a babysitter, she will be able to move forward and forge her own identity. By the toddler years her budding independence may actually become a problem. Wanting things “my way” is at the heart of temper tantrums.

When it Develops

A baby’s sense of individuality takes years to develop. At first she thinks you and she are one and the same. Then at around six months she’ll start to realise that she is separate from you, and that you can leave her alone. This is when the fear of abandonment known as separation anxiety usually begins. It can last well into the second year. But once your child becomes more social and more confident that you will, in fact, come back for her when you leave her at childcare or with a babysitter, she will be able to move forward and forge her own identity. By the toddler years her budding independence may actually become a problem. Wanting things “my way” is at the heart of temper tantrums.

How it develops

One to Six Months

Children under six months completely identify with their primary caregivers. They don’t really think about themselves, only what they immediately need: food, love, and attention. In the first three months, your baby can’t even think about tackling the process of forming her own identity. She’s too busy trying to gain control over her basic movements and reflexes. You may start to notice the first signs of budding independence at about four months. That’s when your baby will discover that she can cry to get your attention. That’s one of the first steps in learning that she has an independent will and that how she behaves can have an impact on others, namely you.

Seven to 12 Months

At around seven months your baby will realise she is independent of you; this is a huge cognitive leap worthy of celebration. Unfortunately, this new understanding of separateness makes your baby anxious. She’s become so attached to you that when you leave her alone, even for a minute, she will burst into tears. She doesn’t have the information yet that you will always come back. And sneaking out when her back is turned – when you leave her at childcare, for example – won’t help. In fact, it may just make her more afraid that you aren’t coming back. Hard as it can be, say goodbye and go while she’s watching.

A now famous British study shows exactly how clueless babies are about their own existence. Researchers placed several infants under the age of one in front of a mirror to see whether they understood that the reflection was an image of themselves. They didn’t. The children patted their mirror image, behaving as if they were seeing another baby. And when researchers dabbed red rouge on each baby’s nose and plopped them back in front of the mirror, they always tried to touch their reflection’s nose, not their own.

12 to 24 Months

Your baby’s making more progress now differentiating herself from you and from the world around her. In the same British study mentioned above, researchers put rouge on the noses of children about 21 months old. When they looked in the mirror they touched their own nose, showing that they understood that the image in the mirror was a reflection of them.

Two-year-olds may still get upset when you leave them at childcare or with a babysitter, but they recover much more quickly now because they’re more secure. Experience, and their budding memory skills, have taught them that you will come back after being gone for a while. Your toddler’s trust in you is growing now, because you have continually shown her that you love and care for her. It’s that feeling of trust that gives her the confidence to venture out on her own. What signs of independence will you notice now? Your child may insist on wearing her purple pajamas for the fifth night in a row, eating only certain foods, and climbing into her car seat by herself

25 to 36 months

Between the ages of two and three, a toddler will continue to struggle for independence. She will wander farther away from you as she goes exploring, and she’ll continue to test her limits (colouring on the walls, for example, even if you tell her not to). In fact, “I can do it myself” is probably one of the most common refrains parents hear from older toddlers.

What Comes Next

With age comes greater independence and self-awareness. Each year will bring more things that your child will want to do on her own. As your child gets older, she’ll become more knowledgeable about herself and the scope of her abilities. Future developments include the ability to prepare her own food, make friends, and go to school.

Your Role

For your child to move away and explore her world, she needs a secure attachment to you. Consistently give her love and support, and she’ll build the confidence she needs to strike out on her own. Creating this strong attachment should begin in infancy. Simple things like responding immediately to your baby’s cries, feeding her when she’s hungry, changing her nappy when it’s dirty, and smiling and talking to her when she’s quiet and alert help build these crucial parent-child bonds.

You should also make sure that you’ve set up a safe environment for your child at home. Babies and toddlers must test their limits and explore their surroundings to develop independence. Instead of running around saying “no” every time she touches something that could harm her, keep dangerous objects out of her reach and safe ones within it. That way she won’t get frustrated when she wanders, and she’ll be safe.

Know, too, that just because your child is starting to strike out on her own doesn’t mean she’ll require less of your comfort and love. Children may grow less needy, but they still crave the constant care of their parents. Encourage her any time she tries something on her own, but don’t push her away when she runs back to you for reassurance. She’ll want and need this for a long time to come.

When to be Concerned

Although separation anxiety is normal for babies between ten and 18 months, you should consult your child’s doctor if her anxiety becomes so overwhelming that she is unable to do anything without you by her side or if she’s inconsolable even after you’re long gone from her presence.

Identifying Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety reaches its peak in babies aged 14-18 months and typically decreases throughout early childhoodStranger anxiety is similar to separation anxiety and involves wariness and distress in the presence of unfamiliar people. It can occur from 8-10 months and usually decreases after the child’s first birthday.

These anxieties are a normal part of development, and are nothing to be concerned about. After all, these anxieties occur when children are becoming more mobile, so they make sense from a survival point of view – that is, if children could crawl or walk away from their carers but weren’t afraid of separation or strangers, they would get lost more easily.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

As children reach preschool and school age, they are less likely to experience separation anxiety. Of course, there will always be times when they only want to be with you.

If children in this age group seem particularly and regularly distressed about being separated from their parents, it’s possible they might have separation anxiety disorder. According to a 2009 study, 4% of preschoolers and school-age children develop this condition.

Separation anxiety disorder is defined as occurring when the:

  • Anxiety interferes with the child’s life, and subsequently the parent’s life
  • Severity of the anxiety is inappropriate for the child’s developmental level
  • Characteristics of separation anxiety have persisted for at least four weeks.

If you’re concerned your child might have separation anxiety disorder, look out for instances when she:

  • Dislikes being separated from you
  • Worries that you or she might get hurt or have an accident
  • Refuses to go to day care, preschool or school
  • Refuses to sleep at other people’s places without you
  • Complains about feeling sick when separated.

Research tells us that 90% of 10-month-old infants will become upset if a stranger approaches them in an unfamiliar room. Only 50% will become upset if the child is given time (10 minutes) to become familiar with the room. This suggests that, in new situations, infants cope better when they come across new things gradually.

Helping Children with Separation Anxiety

If your child is suffering from separation anxiety, there are lots of things you can do to help her.

Read about the stepladder approach, a gentle behavioural technique used to help children who suffer from separation anxiety.

  • Tell your child when you’re leaving and when you’ll be back. This is a helpful thing to do, even with babies. Some parents feel it will be easier to sneak out when their child is settled, but this can make things worse – your child might feel confused or upset when he realises you’re not around, and might then be more difficult to settle the next time you leave him.
  • Say goodbye to your child briefly – don’t drag it out.
  • Settle your child in an enjoyable activity before leaving.
  • If you’re leaving your child in a new setting (child care centre, preschool, friend’s house, babysitter), spend time at the new place with your child before the separation occurs. She needs to know she’s being left in a safe place with a person you can both trust, and she’ll be less distressed if she’s left in a familiar place with familiar people.
  • To increase your child’s feelings of safety, let him take something he loves from home, such as a teddy bear, pillow or blanket. These objects can be gradually phased out as he becomes more settled.
  • Keep a relaxed and happy expression on your face when you’re leaving your child. If you seem worried or sad, your child might think the place isn’t safe and can get upset too.
  • It can be useful to tell your child’s child care centre, preschool or school about her anxiety, and let them know about anything you’re doing to help your child. This way, other people in your child’s environment can give her consistent support.
  • Gently encourage your child to separate from you by giving him practice. It’s important to give him positive experiences of separations and reunions. Avoiding separations from your child can make the problem worse.
  • No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid criticising or being negative about your child’s difficulty with separation. For example, avoid saying things like, ‘She’s such a mummy’s girl’ or ‘Don’t be such a baby’.
  • Read books or make up stories with your child about separation fears. (For example, ‘Once upon a time, there was a little bunny who didn’t want to leave her mummy in the hutch. She was afraid of what she might find outside …’.) This might help your child feel he’s not alone in being afraid of separating from his parents.
  • Make a conscious effort to foster your child’s self-esteem by complimenting her and giving her lots of positive attention.

Professional help

You know your child best. If you’re worried about his anxiety, consider seeking professional help. Here are some places to start:

  • Your Child’s School Counsellor
  • Your Child’s GP or Paediatrician
  • Local Children’s Health or Community Health Centre
  • A specialist Anxiety Clinic (present in most states).