Separation anxiety

Separation from a loved one can be upsetting for everyone. No one wants to leave their child when they are crying for them to stay. It can be helpful to understand what is going on for your young child and why they might all of a sudden be very clingy and very unhappy when they can’t see you!

Most babies will experience separation anxiety at some stage. Separation anxiety usually starts around 10 to 12 months for most babies and peaks around 18 months. It is the developmental stage where young children learn “object permanence”. This is when they understand that you still exist even though they might not see you. In the case of young children, even if they can’t see you, they still want you and will cry and be distressed about that.

This anxiety can peak at bedtime but it can also be difficult if your child is attending child care or you have to leave the house at some stage. Toddlers who were once able to go off to sleep on their own, will want you to stay with them until they fall asleep. This can cause all kinds of disruptions to their sleeping, with them often falling asleep much later than they usually would and waking more overnight.

And your child who was once okay to be dropped at childcare, may now stick to you like glue, begging you not to leave them. All of this can be pretty upsetting.

Having a very good bedtime routine can help with the night time problems. Make sure you stick with what you have been doing so they know how things will go. After going to bed, you can assure them you till pop back to check on them every 5 minutes or so which can help. Don’t try and sneak out of the room as this will only cause more anxiety. Comfort your child but don’t introduce anything new. By that I mean, don’t start lying with your child if you weren’t previously. It should pass after a bit.

With the day time anxiety it is also really important to have ritual. So if you have to leave the house, make sure you say the same thing every time you leave. It is also very important to not sneak away. This will only increase your child’s anxiety. Tell them you are leaving but you will be back. Give them a kiss and wave bye-bye. Then leave. If your child is crying, then let their carers deal with it. Try not to go back once you have left. Children usually calm down reasonably quickly with a carer they know. If you go back and try to comfort them, you will only prolong their distress.

This should be the same ritual if you drop your child to childcare. It is also a good idea to say the same thing when you return at the end of the day. Something happy and cheery like: “Here I am. I said I would be back and I am. It’s so lovely to see you!”If you do this every time it will become the ritual and your child’s anxiety will lessen as they know that you do come back, even if you leave.

Separation anxiety can be frustrating for parents, particularly if you are the parent that your child can’t live without. No matter how frustrated you feel, try to avoid criticising or being negative about your child’s difficulty with separation. Read books or make up stories with your child about separation fears.

Another good way of dealing with it is to do “social stories”. These are made up stories about your child dealing with an issue. Children love to hear stories about themselves so you can tell a story about your child who was so brave but didn’t like leaving his mum….he then grew to be braver as he loved his school etc.

It’s also so important to foster your children’s self-esteem by giving lots of positive attention when you are with them. Even 15 minutes of one-on-one attention per day can really make a difference.

Article by Wattle Health resident expert, Paediatric Nurse, Jo Ryan.