How to Handle Separation Anxiety

It is heartbreaking to leave your child when he is upset. Read on for tips from Dr. Jessica Long on how to ease your child’s separation anxiety.

Nothing pulls at your heart strings like your child crying when you need to leave.  It makes you feel awful and, even if your little one recovers as soon as you are out of sight, makes you feel horribly guilty the entire time you are away.  Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development but that does not make it any easier to endure.

Babies start to experience separation anxiety around the age of 4-7 months once they realize that you exist even when you are not right in front of them (this is known as “object permanence”).  They want you when you’re not there and are sad when you leave, even if it’s just to walk to the other room.  As our babies grow into toddlers, episodes of separation anxiety become less frequent but can be more intense (think crying, yelling, tantrums).  School-age children can even exhibit separation anxiety, especially with big changes like starting school or a new sibling in the house.  Thankfully though, it’s unusual for daily separation anxiety to continue in your school-age child. If it does, you should discuss it with your pediatrician.

So what’s a parent to do when you have to leave the house – now! – but you have a sobbing child clinging to your leg?  First off, no matter how tempting it is, don’t sneak out.  Your child needs to trust you and suddenly disappearing will only make her more fearful of your absences.  Instead, let her know that you are leaving and when you’ll be back in terms she’ll understand (“after you wake up from your nap” or “right before lunch”).  Just as importantly, keep that promise and be home when you say you will.  Develop a goodbye ritual that you use each time, to provide consistency, but keep it short.  Longer rituals may lead your child to fixate on the idea of you leaving.

Remember that practice makes perfect.  Being separated from a parent is important for your little one’s development, and it’s healthy for him to spend some time away from you.  Even having a friend, family member, or nanny provide child care for a few hours gives you the chance to practice your goodbye ritual and allows your child to experience special time with other trusted adults in his life.

Most importantly, separation anxiety is temporary.  Our children continue to grow, mature, and get used to new situations.  Stay loving and consistent in your goodbye routine and it will become easier and easier.