We’ve all been there. Your child doesn’t want you to leave their side for whatever reason and has a bit of an emotional breakdown or becomes clingy as you head out the door.
As hard as it is on a parent, a bit of separation anxiety should not cause concern.
However, when that anxiety becomes extreme and starts affecting your child’s ability to interact socially, it moves into the realm of separation anxiety disorder (SAD).
For babies, separation anxiety can occur as early as six months but is most prevalent around 18 months.
They understand the concept of people or things leaving before they develop the idea that they come back.
Then into the toddler years, anxiety around separation stems from an inability to communicate their thoughts and emotions effectively.
Typically, most separation anxiety resolves itself by age 5 or so.
That’s not to say that significant transitions and changes to routine won’t cause some fear and hesitation.
It’s understandable that a 5-year-old might be frightened at the idea of going to kindergarten on their own if they’ve spent most of their days with a parent up until that point
Separation Anxiety Tips
- Trial runs
Leave your child for a short, defined period (60 minutes at first) with someone they are familiar with. If this works out, increase the time over several visits.
- Talk it up:
As with any change in a child’s life, talking about the experience ahead of time can help them mentally prepare. If they are starting preschool, for example, talk about how fun it’s going to be making new friends, playing on the playground and having snack time.
Walk through the routine of drop off, keeping everything positive. Pretend to drive to where they will be going (school for example), explore the room, give hugs, and say goodbye. Then you can switch (playing the role of your child). Talk about how interesting all the new things are and how you know that mom or dad is only gone for a little while and will be back soon to pick you up.
- Make drop-off special
Create your own high five or special hug that you and your child develop together. Reserve this specifically for when you need to say goodbye. A ritual helps keep things consistent. It’s best to keep it simple and quick.
- Bring something familiar
Does your child have a lovey or blanket that calms them down? Bring it with you.
- Simple exit:
Keep your exit straightforward. Kiss your child, say goodbye, let them know you will be back and then leave. Don’t hang around unnecessarily as this can escalate emotions. It’s not advised to disappear while they have their head turned, but if they become distracted by a playmate after you have said farewell, that would be an appropriate time to leave.
- Consistency in care
If at all possible, try to keep the person in charge of caring for your child as consistent as possible. This helps them know who and what to expect which reduces stress.
Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
While there is no definitive diagnosis for SAD, it comes down to the severity of your child’s fear and if their anxiety is coupled with worry that something will happen to you or them because of the separation. When trying to determine if your child is suffering from SAD consider:
- The intensity of the anxiety and fear
- Their age (school-aged children should be able to communicate and cope better than younger children)
- Their ability to function socially after you leave
- If they become anxious just thinking about you going
- Do they fake sickness to get out of a situation where you would need to leave?
- Do they worry you might get sick or hurt while you are away?
- Are they unable to sleep on their own?
SAD is usually due to an upheaval in a child’s emotional state. They don’t feel secure and always being around a parent makes them feel safe. If you can identify the reason for your child’s fear, you can often address the issue directly. Keep in mind that responses to a traumatic event can manifest in similar ways but is not the same as SAD.
If you suspect your child is experiencing SAD:
- Talk to your pediatrician
They can offer advice and refers depending on the severity of your child’s condition.
- Listen to your child’s feelings
Their concerns may not be logical, but they still deserve to be heard. The more you come to understand your child’s fear, the more you can do to start addressing it.
- Keep calm
This can be easier said than done but try to maintain your composure, keep your voice calm and comforting. If you start to become upset, it will feed into your child’s emotional state and make it worse.
- Praise progress
Little steps towards less anxiety should be celebrated. If they ended up participating in a school activity after they were hesitant at drop off, let them know how proud you are of them.