Behavior & Development • Nov 07, 2014

Separation Anxiety in Young Children

separation anxietyWe’ve all been in the situation where our toddler or preschooler is crying when we try to leave them.  It can be heartbreaking! Each child has individual differences, though most all children demonstrate some uneasiness about leaving mom and dad at some point.  In fact, separation anxiety is a normal stage of development.  Typically, anxiety about separating begins shortly before a child’s first birthday and has usually faded by approximately 3 years of age (depending on the child and whether she has had practice in separating).  When a child does not want you to leave, they can put lots of effort in to getting you to stay.  Children may cry or whine, refuse to let go of you or your clothes, chase you out the door, engage in disruptive behavior, and try every stall tactic to keep us from leaving.  None of us likes to see our children upset.  It is our instinct to want to stay and comfort our child.  But, it’s actually how we respond during those times when they are upset that help determine how well our children can cope with separation.  The following are tips to keep in mind when trying to decrease normal separation anxiety.

  • Practice – Just like most all things our children are learning, their success improves with practice.  Toddlers and preschoolers need opportunities to separate from their parents in order for them to get better at it.  Those children who attend daycare or preschool regularly have built in opportunities for practice.  Those children who are cared for by a parent in the day may benefit from parents seeking out opportunities to separate.  You can start with short separations.  Even 5-10 minutes of separation at a time can be a good place to start.  This helps your child to realize that you will come back after you have left.
  • Make it quick – It’s like pulling off a Band-Aid.  If you keep pulling up that Band-Aid just a little at a time, it continues to hurt throughout the whole long process.  If you rip it off quickly, it stings, and then it’s over quickly.  Often, our children recover very quickly when we leave them somewhere.  Even though we stay for a longer good-bye because we trying to calm our children, it is likely that this will result in them being upset for longer.  Also, staying with them when they are demonstrating undesirable behaviors is inadvertently reinforcing those behaviors.  What do you think they will do the next time you try to drop them off? Anything to get you to stay longer!
  • Good-bye routine – It’s best to develop a short good-bye routine.  This will allow your child to know exactly what to expect during this difficult transition.  Make it predictable.  For example, if you are dropping your child off at daycare, you may follow the same little routine each morning; we hang your coat, put your bag in your cubby, wash your hands, give a hug and a kiss, and say good-bye.  Then we leave the room, regardless of whether our child is upset.  Remember, staying longer only lengthens the amount of time our children are upset.  We want our children to learn that undesirable behavior will not make us stay longer.  You can enlist the help of your daycare or babysitter to then quickly engage your child in another activity and comfort them.
  • Avoid sneaking away – It’s best to avoid sneaking away when our children are not looking or when they are sleeping.  Remember, we want to make this predicable.  Sneaking is not predictable.  It does not teach a child how to say good-bye.  Instead, it makes children more wary of you leaving, and maybe even more clingy during times you are not planning to leave.  If you consistently leave when your child is sleeping, it might accidently cause hesitancy for your child when trying to fall asleep, anticipating that you might not be there when she wakes up.  Tell your child when you are leaving and tell them when you plan to be back, i.e. after snack, or after nap.
  • Transitional objects – The use of transitional objects can help a child with separation.  This is any type of object that helps a child to feel more comfortable.  It could be your child’s favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or lovie.  You can also get creative and give your child something to take with them, like a picture of the family or a special note you wrote for them.  If your child is old enough, you might give them something that you describe as very special to you.  For instance, you might give them your “lucky” keychain or your “favorite” bracelet to keep in their pocket while you are away (only give objects that you don’t mind if they lose!).  This can help them feel closer to you while you are away.
  • Monitor your own affect – This last point is one that we can easily forget when we get caught up in the moment; however, our affect conveys an important message to our children.  If we are crying or anxious during drop off, we are sending a message that we are concerned, too; that we don’t think this is a good idea.  Our children are thinking, “Why would I want to stay here when my mom isn’t even okay with this!”  Now don’t take this out of context, I’m not saying it is not okay for our children to see us upset.  I just don’t think that drop-off time is the best time.  I understand if you are upset – I’ve been upset during drop-offs too.  However, I would encourage you to leave the room and then shed a few tears.  We can strive to convey confidence in our child’s ability.  We also have to be aware of our affect at pick up.  If we act overly excited or surprised that they survived, then our children will share our surprise and may continue to doubt that they are actually capable of being left without us.

Separation is no easy time, though by following some of these tips, hopefully your little one will adjust very quickly.  If separation anxiety persists as a child ages and begins to significantly interfere with a child’s normal activities, then it may be a larger concern of Separation Anxiety Disorder.  This is a persistent anxiety about leaving home or fear that something bad may happen to oneself or to a loved one.  It is characterized by refusal to participate in normal activities and anxiety and that is atypical for their age.  Parents should seek professional help to identify strategies for treatment.


  1. If you have little kids aging from 2 to 3 years old, there is certainly a little you can tell them and also they will understand very little. The most important thing while dealing with a toddler is to make sure that he has been given enough emotional support from both of the parents so that he doesn’t take separation as a loss of a parent. A toddler should be given enough time and support from both of the parents

    For a school going child, he should be simply told, mom and dad won’t be living together instead of saying mom and dad don’t love each other anymore. From the first statement, a child won’t consider himself responsible for this separation and will be able to get along with the situation. By telling the child repeatedly that mom and dad love you and will never leave you can be a good start for the confusion of the child. It is important not to give long explanations to the child about their separation, instead keep the explanations brief while concentrating on the stuff you can do for him in order to cope up with the change.

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