Easing Separation Anxiety
A parent toolkit to make separations smoother from babyhood through adolescence.
It’s a scene many parents have lived out: You’re having a good morning, sipping coffee as you drive your happy, babbling 8-month-old to the babysitter’s house on your way to work. Armed with the diaper bag and your baby’s lovey, you bundle her into the sitter’s warm, welcoming home as you’ve done dozens of times.
But this time, when you hand her to the sitter, things go sour. She throws herself back toward you, seemingly trying to leap from the sitter’s arms into yours, unleashing a guttural scream as her face turns crimson. Your heart drops. You offer a few soothing utterances before turning to leave, your stomach and mind in knots as you reluctantly walk back to the car. Though separation anxiety in children developmentally is normal —even healthy — it can be confusing and upsetting, too. Here’s an age-by-age guide for facilitating smoother separations from babyhood through adolescence.
When separation anxiety first strikes, usually around 7-8 months of age, it takes many parents by surprise because it seems to come on suddenly. In fact, separation anxiety is the result of your baby’s healthy cognitive development and his expanding perception of the world around him. Though hardly pleasant, separation anxiety is the sign of a strong, secure attachment to a primary caregiver, says Sara Thatcher, child psychotherapist and owner of Oak City Counseling in Raleigh.
During a separation anxiety flare-up, Thatcher recommends that parents remain calm and model confidence, even if they feel torn. Maintaining a consistent drop-off routine and avoiding prolonged goodbyes can help ease separation anxiety over time, she says. When your baby or toddler resists separating, offer a kiss and a cuddle and assure your child that you’ll return later. When you appear calm and collected (even if you feel anything but serene), your child senses that separations are safe.
Anxiety over separation from parents or caregivers isn’t solely the domain of babies and toddlers. School age children experience separation blues, too.
“Separation anxiety can ebb and flow throughout childhood, and this is normal,” Thatcher says. But for grade schoolers heading out on their first overnight sleepovers, separation anxiety can dampen the fun of what should be a celebratory gathering.
First, assure a child she’s never under any obligation to participate in a sleepover, even if Grandma has requested an overnight visit or “everyone will be at the birthday party.” If your anxious child does want to attend, take steps to prep for a smooth, enjoyable experience by sending a small coping toolkit along with your child, recommends child psychologist Sandra S. Pimentel, Ph.D., chief of Child and Adolescent Psychology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
“Include words of encouragement on an index card, a small stuffed animal or soothing toy, a picture of something treasured or encouraging, and a written reminder of what to do if they get anxious while there, like listen to music or read, or call home for a brief check-in,” Pimentel suggests.
The teen years bring exciting journeys — longer summer camps, visits to faraway friends, internships and college visits. These trips offer tremendous learning value to teens, but they also mean longer separations from home, which can provoke anxiety (even if your teen is reluctant to admit he or she misses mom and dad). Setting up a regular schedule for communication check-ins, such as a text exchange each evening, a daily email or a phone call every other day can help your teen stay connected while he’s away.
“I recommend an outlet for potentially stressful separation times, such as a journal or way to contact parents in writing, like email,” Pimentel says. “If the teen is especially anxious about the trip, having a discussion with the camp counselors or trip director about how to get in touch regularly may be helpful.”
When you speak with your traveling teen, keep the tone upbeat, Pimentel says. This communicates that you’re confident in your young adult-in-training and his ability to spread his wings.
Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. Her latest book is “Sleep Tight, Every Night: Helping Toddlers and Preschoolers Sleep Well Without Tears, Tricks, or Tirades.”