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Separation Anxiety

I received an email from a mother who was concerned because her toddler son was crying when they left him at day care.  They were “alarmed” as he had not...

I received an email from a mother who was concerned because her toddler son was crying when they left him at day care.  They were “alarmed” as he had not previously cried when they dropped him off and wondered if this was “normal” or a sign of a problem. Actually, this phenomenon should be quite reassuring to a parent as this is a sign that your child is developmentally on track, and has developed a healthy attachment to his parents. 

All children go through periods developmentally when they are more prone to separation anxiety.  As a new parent you are often concerned about “leaving” your child under the care of someone other than a parent. But, in actuality, it is far easier to leave a newborn or an infant than it is to leave a 8-9 month old.

By the time a child reaches this age they are beginning to show signs of stranger anxiety. In other words, they now recognize the faces and voices of their parents, routine caregivers, siblings etc.

But, when a new person (and face) reaches out for a 9 month old it is not uncommon for that child to suddenly panic and burst into tears. This is not because the “stranger” has done anything at all, but because the child now understands being separated from their parent and may fear that the parent is leaving forever. 

The bond between parent and child has been successfully established, which is quite healthy. This is the beginning of teaching a child that a parent may leave for work, school or even a trip, but that they will return.  Just because a parent leaves for awhile, they are not gone forever. 

This first stage of separation anxiety can provoke feelings of anxiousness in both child and parent, but it is an essential part of normal development. Separation anxiety, like almost all behaviors, varies from child to child. While some childen are more clingy than others, some may just be “wired” in a certain way and are more vulnerable to separating from a parent. Regardless, it is important for a child to begin to deal with healthy separation. 

During the ages of 12 – 24 months separation anxiety seems to peak, and the period of crying or anxiety when a parent drops a child at day care or Sunday school, or even at a grandparents house may escalate. 

While a child may cry after being dropped off, most children will then calm down and may be distracted and will begin playing soon after the parent has left. Again, some children just seem to take longer to adjust, so don’t be alarmed if  one child cries for 2 minutes, while another may take up to 20-30 minutes to settle down. 

Toddlers do not understand the concept of time, and therefore each one may react differently.  While happily playing while the parent is gone, it is not uncommon for the child to cry again upon seeing their parent when being picked up.  For the toddler, the return of the parent may remind them of how they felt when the parent left earlier in the day. 

For most children separation anxiety decreases between 2 -4 years of age as you can explain, and a child can understand, where you are going, how long you will be gone etc. 

For children who have rarely been left with others, it may be more difficult at this age.  Remember, healthy separations are important for both parent and child, and the idea that no one will “babysit” or care for your child other than a parent is not realistic nor does it teach your child to build trust in others. 

The more experience a child has had with earlier normal periods of separation the easier different transitions will be.  Remember, they will all be going to school one day and you want to prepare them for that separation.

Lastly, every child has good days and bad days and almost every child will have a phase when it is harder to separate than others. Just remember to hang in there, be re-assuring to your child when you leave them, do not prolong the departure, and be understanding about their anxiety. As with so many experiences in parenting, “this too shall pass”. 

That's your daily dose for today. We'll chat again tomorrow.

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About Sue Hubbard, M.D.

Dr. Sue Hubbard is an award winning pediatrician and medical editor for www.kidsdr.com.  She is a native of Washington, D.C. who travelled south to attend the University of Texas at Austin and never left.Read More