Separation anxiety is a form of anxiety that mostly impacts babies and young children but can also show up in teens and adults. Separation anxiety can cause children to become clingy, nervous or fearful when a parent or loved one leaves them, or are out of sight.
All children and teens feel some anxiety at some point, and it is a normal part of growing up. However, despite this, separation anxiety can be traumatic for new parents when babies and toddlers get clingy and tearful when either parent leaves them.
Separation anxiety is very normal around 6 months old, and generally improves around 1 year, but can continue up to the age of 3. If Separation anxiety lasts for a prolonged period of time, or if your child is particularly distressed, it can be known as an Anxiety Disorder.
Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) causes a child to worry excessively when they are apart from family members or others close to them, and this then has an impact on family life.
Toddlers and young children worry that they will be lost from their parent or caregiver, or that something terrible will happen to their parents if they are not together.
Nearly all children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years old have separation anxiety at some point and are clingy to some degree. But the symptoms of SAD are more severe.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
It is believed that separation anxiety is caused by both biological and environmental factors, as it is possible for a child to pick up on the tendency to be anxious and fearful from someone close to them.
In addition, a traumatic event may also cause separation anxiety, for example, if your child has become separated from you in the past, or you were unable to collect them on time.
While no parent intends for this to happen, it is common.
I can recall being stuck in traffic on my way to the school run to pick my daughter up. She had only recently started in reception and I planned to surprise her as she was usually collected by our childminder. I was panicking that I was going to be late because of the traffic jam, and then I made matters so much worse by taking a wrong turn onto a dual carriageway.
This meant I was definitely going to be late. I couldn’t call the school or her childminder as I was driving and there was nowhere to pull over to make the call. My guilt and anxiety were in overdrive.
Every awful thought was going through my head. By the time I got to the school, she was waiting in the school office, the only child still there. I felt such a terrible Mum, but I knew it was important not to transfer my fear onto my daughter.
I took a deep breath as I approached the school office, smiled, gave her a big hug and talked to her excitedly about how lovely the teachers were who waited with her. I told her Mummy had taken a wrong turn and the SatNav told me to “turn around when possible”. This was something she could relate to as she had heard this message before ….. and in return, she told me about the picture she had drawn for me.
While I tried my best to focus on being positive, it is totally understandable that she was a little clingy for a few days afterwards.
What Are The Symptoms Of Separation Anxiety?
Depending on the age of your child, symptoms of separation anxiety may include:
- Clinging to parents and refusing to let go, extreme and severe crying
- Recurring and excessive worry about predicting or being away from parents
- Constant, excessive worry about losing a parent or loved one in an accident, or to an illness or a disaster
- Persistent worry that something bad will happen, such as being lost or kidnapped, leading to separation from parents
- Refusing to be away from home because of fear of separation, or avoiding being home alone without a parent or other loved one in the house with them
- Repeated nightmares about separation
- Frequent complaints of headaches, stomach aches or other symptoms linked to anxiety when separation from a parent is anticipated, or violent, emotional temper tantrums as a result of fight or flight survival mode
- Refusal to do things that require separation such as going to school
- Poor school performance and failure to interact with other children
What Are The Three Stages Of Separation Anxiety?
There are three stages to a child's separation anxiety response: protest when they want you to stay, despair when they cry and withdraw, and detachment when they are able to accept you are not there.
A baby will start to cry when put down, the intensity will increase as you walk away and then they will eventually fall asleep
A young child will likely call for you to come back as you leave, seem distraught when you've just left, and eventually settle back down.
An older child will cling to you as you try and leave them, appear distressed when you leave, and be distracted by another activity shortly after you have left.
If your child used to be calm when you left the room and were comfortable being held by strangers, it may well feel frustrating and as if they are taking a step backwards in their development if they start crying whenever you're away from them or strangers are close.
However, separation anxiety is a positive sign indicating your child has developed a strong attachment to you and now realises how dependent they are on their parents and caregivers. This may include their siblings, grandparents or professionals closely involved with their care, as well as their parents. They have formed a strong and healthy bond with their parent or caregiver, which is important for social and emotional functioning throughout life.
As your child gets more aware of their surroundings, their strong relationship with their loved ones means they don't feel so safe without you there. Your child’s increased awareness of the world around them may also make them feel unsafe or upset in new situations or with new people, even if you are there.
Does Separation Anxiety Go Away?
Yes, separation anxiety is just a stage of development that all children need to go through as they learn the concept of permanence and time.
Separation anxiety may occur around 6 months as this is when babies learn object permanence. This is when we start to remember objects that aren't immediately in front of us – so young babies can miss their parents when they are not there.
Around 9-10 months your baby is gaining a greater concept of time. Previously, they wouldn't necessarily understand if you were absent for a second or an hour, however, their knowledge of their own daily routine may now enable them to understand when you will leave them to go to work or to drop them off for child care.
After 1 year, your child will be feeling more independent than they did a few months ago, and therefore more aware of time apart. Due to this extra confidence and sense of self, they may start to protest more (and louder) when you leave and may even pick up on some of your own anxiety and guilt.
Separation anxiety and fear of strangers is common in young children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, and it's a normal part of your child's development and they usually grow out of it.
Effects Of Separation Anxiety Disorder On Family Life
Emotional and social development are both impacted by a separation anxiety disorder and may cause your child to avoid experiences that are essential to normal development.
Some of these challenges may include:
- family activities that are impacted by negative behaviour as a result of your child's anxiety
- parents with little to no time for themselves or each other, resulting in frustration and a breakdown of relationships
- siblings that become jealous of the extra attention given to the child struggling with separation anxiety
If your child has separation anxiety, then you may wish to speak with an anxiety specialist about strategies you can use to help manage its effect on family life.
How to Reduce Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can be equally tough on parents as on the child. It may have become a challenge leaving your child at nursery or day school, or with a childminder. The constant clinginess may feel exhausting and you may feel distressed leaving them in an emotional state. This would most likely distract you during your day as you worry about the impact the separation anxiety is having on your child.
Banish The Guilt
Remind yourself that separation anxiety is totally natural and the result of your child developing a strong healthy bond with you. As your child transitions through the stages of development, they become aware of situations that are new to them and therefore may be perceived as fearful.
Encourage your child to understand that if you leave them, you will return, and they will be ok during the time in between. If your child is old enough, you can talk them through what is going on in a calm reassuring voice, and let them know where you are going and when you will be back.
By leaving your child with another caregiver, you are teaching them helpful coping strategies that will encourage them to be independent in later life and grow their confidence.
Practise Short Separations From Your Child
Initially start by leaving your child in someone else's care for a few minutes while you leave the room. Leave your child with someone they know well so they still feel comfortable and safe when you are not there. Gradually work towards longer separations when you can leave the house for short periods, increasing over time. When your child has adapted to coping without you, then you can try leaving them in less familiar settings such as childcare or nursery.
Avoid sneaking away. Say goodbye and tell them you are leaving. Give them plenty of cuddles when you return and remind them of how proud you are of them.
Make Saying Goodbye A Positive Experience
When you leave your baby, try not to let on if you are sad or worried about them as they will pick up on your own nervousness. Smile and wave goodbye confidently and happily, then walk away. By giving your child a positive experience of saying goodbye followed by happy reunions, you are teaching them an important life lesson.
Talk About What You Will Do Together Later
Talk to your child about what you're going to do when you see them again so they have something to look forward to with you. For example, you could say: "When Mummy comes back to pick you up, we'll go to the park together on the way home."
Leave Something Comforting With Your Child
It may comfort your child to have something comforting with them such as a favourite teddy sprayed with your perfume, as this may help reassure them while you are away.
Where To Get Help For Separation Anxiety
It's completely natural for babies and young children to cry when they are apart from their main caregiver, and as babies get older, they are more able to understand their parents still exist even when they can't see them.
If your child's separation anxiety is causing them a lot of distress, they are upset for a long time after you have left them, or it has been going on for more than a few weeks, you may need to speak to an anxiety specialist.
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If anxiety is something you or your loved ones struggle with regularly, then please get in touch to discuss how I can help you overcome the underlying cause of anxiety.