behavior development

Separation Anxiety: Tips for Toddlers and Preschoolers

separation anxiety toddlers preschoolers

As we draw closer to the end of the summer, many parents are preparing to send off their toddlers and preschoolers for their first daycare and/or preschool experience.  For many parents, this means their first experience with separation anxiety.  Separation anxiety can be a source of frustration and pain for both parents and their children.  Many of us feel horribly guilty when we leave our child with a caretaker only to have them scream and call out for us to return.  I don't know about you, but I've driven away from my daycare provider's house many a time in tears at drop off time!

While it can be guilt inducing, it is important for us to keep in mind that separation anxiety is a normal part of our child’s development. It actually is a good thing in that it is a clear sign that our child has formed a healthy attachment with us.   Before I go further, however, I do want to say that not all children experience separation anxiety. This in no way means that a child who does not experience separation anxiety is any less attached to his parent. My son, for example, never experienced it. I attribute this to his temperament and personality. He was never fearful of strangers and has always been very independent. My daughter, on the other hand, was very clingy and had difficulty with separation. So sometimes the explanation can be as simple as temperament or personality (check out my YouTube video if you want to learn more about temperament). Having said that, here are some common questions about separation anxiety:   

What causes it?

  • Separation anxiety is the result of your child’s growing cognitive and social emotional development. Between 4 and 7 months of age, your baby starts to develop the cognitive skill of object permanence. This is when your baby begins to learn that things and people exist even when they are out of sight. So when you step out of the room, your baby realizes you are gone but does not yet understand that you will return causing anxiety and fear.
  • If you think about it from an evolutionary framework, it makes sense that many children experience separation anxiety. As your child’s parent, you protect and care for him so it is natural that he become distraught when separated from you.

When should I expect it and how long does it last?

  • Separation anxiety usually occurs between the ages of 8 months to 1 year. This is when children become more mobile and start to explore their world on their own. Despite this, however, they feel uncertain about being away from you. You’ve probably noticed that while your baby explores, he looks back to see that you are still there.
  • Although it usually occurs between 8 months to 1 year, some children experience separation anxiety later (18 months and 2 ½ years of age) while some children never experience it at all which,  remember, is okay!
  • If separation anxiety interferes with an older child’s normal activities like going to school, attending friend’s birthday parties or the like, it can be a sign of a deeper anxiety disorder.
  • In cases where separation anxiety appears out of the blue in an older child, it can be an indication of another problem that the child may be dealing with such as bullying or abuse.
  • Keep in mind too that certain life stresses can triggers feelings of anxiety about being separated from a parent, such as a new childcare situation, a new sibling, moving to a new place or tension in the home.
  • Some babies may even experience night time separation anxiety, i.e., missing you while they are in their crib. More on how to deal with this below.
  • Remember that this is a phase that will pass. Most children outgrow separation anxiety by the age of 5 and are able to experience time away from you and your home without any problems.  

What can I do to make it easier for my child?

  • My number one tip for parents is NEVER SNEAK OUT WHEN YOU LEAVE YOUR CHILD!  I have had many parents do this over the years when we did visits at school. I'm going to tell you it makes things worse.  Let's put ourselves in your kids shoes:  Your child goes to a new place with new people.  They may be a bit nervous, but you are there so they feel safe.  Your child goes to explore and turns around to check in and, boom, you're are gone!  You, my friend, have just built a neural pathway that you are going to regret.  ALWAYS say a strong goodbye and let them see you leave.  They will learn over time with repetition that you always come back.  
  • Now that you know that separation anxiety usually occurs between 8 months to a year, consider holding off on hiring a new sitter or daycare provider during that time if possible.
  • Ask a new sitter to visit and play with your child several times before leaving them alone for the first time. For your first real outing, ask the sitter to arrive about 30 minutes before you depart so that she and the child can be well engaged before you step out the door. Employ the same approach at a daycare center, nursery, church, etc.
  • Create a goodbye ritual during which you say a pleasant, loving, and firm goodbye. Stay calm and show confidence in your child. Reassure him or her that you’ll be back and explain how long it will be until you return using concepts your child will understand (such as after lunch) because your child can’t yet understand time. 
  • Make sure that you return when you have promised to return. This is important as you want your child to develop the confidence that he or she can make it through this time. In order to do this, they need to see that you will be there when you say you will be there.
  • Avoid repeated trips back into the house or daycare center or prolonged goodbyes. This makes it harder on you, your child and the caregiver.
  • Children are quick to pick up on our emotions, so exude confidence in your caretaker and your child’s ability to handle the situation. If you get upset, so will your child! Try to keep your composure in front of them -- it's okay to cry in the car!     
  • Finally, if your child refuses to go to a certain babysitter or day care center or shows signs of anxiety such as trouble sleeping or loss of appetite, then there could be a problem with the child care situation. Trust your gut.   

How do I handle nighttime separation anxiety? 

  • Spend some extra cuddle time with your child before bed by reading, snuggling and softly singing together.
  • If your tot cries for you after you’ve put him to bed, it is fine to go to him – both to reassure him and to reassure yourself that he’s okay. But make your visits brief and boring so he will learn to fall back to sleep without a lot of help from you. Eventually, he’ll be able to fall asleep on his own.   

How can I help my older child? 

  • Listen to your child’s feelings. Let your child know that you understand his feelings and reassure him that you’ll return. A statement such as “I know you’re feeling sad. I’ll miss you too” is more helpful than telling a child that he’s making a fuss over nothing.
  • Read stories, role-play and remind your child of successes. Read books that discuss separation anxiety (I've shared some of my favorites below). Talk with your child about times when she was brave or did something independently.
  • Honor all commitments to your child, especially time commitments. Be especially attentive to picking up a child at the specified time or returning home when stated. Look for other ways to make and honor commitments, even small ones, to build trust and security.
  • Plan and talk about enjoyable activities in advance. Help your child prepare to be away and anticipate positive outcomes. For example, if your preschooler is anxious about going to school, tell them how excited you will be to hear about all the amazing things they do at school.  Point out some of their favorites like playing in the sensory bin or going out on the playground.  Hype school up before they walk out the door.

What if nothing seems to work?  

  • Take a second look at your sitter or daycare. The person or center may be a mismatch for your child if he continues to become anxious and weepy when you leave.
  • Leave your child with a relative or someone he knows well for 15 minute periods working your way up to one hour. Your child can learn that when you leave you’ll return without having the added stress of being with someone unfamiliar.
  • Re-evaluate your goodbye pattern. Do you sneak out when your baby isn’t looking? Do you make it seem like you are leaving and never coming back?  Do you slowly back down the walk waving a crying?  

Resources on Separation Anxiety:   There are some great children's books out there on the subject of separation. Reading them to your child can be a great way to address their anxiety. Here are just a few*:   

Grown-ups might find Helping Your Child Overcome Separation Anxiety or School Refusal: A Step-by-Step Guide For Parents a helpful resource as well.     

A lengthy article, I know, but important information for those parents dealing with this issue. I hope that the tips and resources will help those going through this with their child find ways to cope and understand this normal part of their child’s development. Hang in there and remember, this too shall pass!    

*Disclosure: The links above are affiliate links. This means that, at zero cost to you, I will earn an affiliate commission if you click through the link and finalize a purchase.