Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is common in children between the ages of eight months to three years. In fact, almost all infants and toddlers experience separation anxiety at some stage of development. However, children who have special needs may have an even more difficult time with separation anxiety than others.

Gradually learning to separate from a parent or other primary caregiver is an important skill for children to learn. Here are some things that may help you manage separation anxiety—in you or your child.

Early Intervention or Preschool Programs: Coping with Separation Anxiety

Some adults experience anxiety when separated from loved ones, so your child may not be the only one suffering from separation anxiety. One reason you may be hesitant about leaving your child is that you don’t feel comfortable leaving your child in another’s care. Or, you may worry how your child will cope without you. Some parents also wonder if their children will get anything constructive out of a program if they are upset most of the time.

It may help to remember this: Children often stop crying soon after their parents leave. Also know that separation is a skill that needs to be built gradually over time. If you have trouble separating from your child, do what you can to work on this. As you probably know, how you respond will make a big difference in how your child responds.

How to Work On Separation from Your Child

Here are some tips that may help both you and your child.

  • Start leaving your child occasionally with a family member, friend, or babysitter by six months of age.
  • Prepare your child ahead of time. Talk about where you are going, who you will see when you get there, and what you will do.
  • Help your child become familiar with new places or classrooms before you leave him alone with the teachers and other children. Talk to the staff about the idea of leaving for short periods and then returning.
  • Take the time to sit with your child and play until she is comfortable with her surroundings. A slow and steady approach will make a smoother transition.
  • Always tell your child goodbye. You may be tempted to sneak off to avoid your child’s tantrum or crying. Don’t do it! This may only make your child clingier, since your child will never know when you will disappear without notice.
  • When it is time to go, cheerfully and firmly tell your child a quick goodbye, something like this: “Goodbye, Mommy is going to parent group now, I’ll be back at bubble time.” Do not allow your goodbye to turn into a long drawn-out scene. This will only make it harder on your child and on you.

While the initial separation may become more difficult at first, know that if you develop and stick with a routine, separation will become easier.

Brazelton, T.B. (1992) Touchpoints: Your Child’s Emotional and Behavioral Development. Boston: Addison-Wesley. (A wonderful, general reference book that covers many topics related to your child’s social and emotional development.)

Lerner, C. and Dombro, A.L. (2000) Learning & Growing Together: Understanding Your Child’s Development. Washington, D.C.: ZERO TO THREE. (A short, easy-to-read book that talks about the first three years and the impact of the parent-child relationship on all areas of a child’s development.)Lieberman, Alicia (1993) The Emotional Life of the Toddler. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc. (A must-read for parents of toddlers, or soon to be toddlers filled with wonderful stories and valuable information.)