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Separation Anxiety

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety occurs when a child becomes stressed when separated from a primary caregiver. This situation is stressful for both parent and child, but it’s important to know that it’s a normal phase of development that nearly all children go through. Many times when children are separated from their parents or primary caregiver, some anxiety is to be expected. There are ways you can help your child cope and ease their fears.

Symptoms of Separation Anxiety

Symptoms of separation anxiety occur when a child is separated from parents or caregivers. Fear of separation can also cause anxiety-related behaviors. Some of the most common behaviors include:

  • clinging to parents
  • extreme and severe crying
  • refusal to do things that require separation
  • physical illness, such as headaches or vomiting
  • violent, emotional temper tantrums
  • refusal to go to school
  • poor school performance
  • failure to interact in a healthy manner with other children
  • refusing to sleep alone
  • nightmares

Separation Anxiety and Infants

You might feel anxious about leaving your infant with other caregivers. Most parents often do. When your baby is under 6 months old, the chances of separation anxiety are rare.

When your baby is between 4 and 7 months old, they’ll start to understand the concept of object permanence. That is, your baby will recognize that people and things continue to exist even when they’re not visible. Babies usually don’t understand time, which means they can’t recognize that when you leave, you’ll come back. When you disappear for any amount of time, even a few seconds, your baby thinks you’ve left and may become upset. This is the beginning of separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety and Toddlers

According to the Nemours Center for Children’s Health System, separation anxiety tends to appear between 8 and 12 months of age. At this point in your baby’s life, they’ve become familiar with family members, regular caregivers, and the home environment, and know these to be safe. New people and places are often frightening. Separating from the familiarity of a parent in these situations causes anxiety.

To relieve this anxiety and to try to prevent you from leaving, your baby might:

  • cry
  • scream
  • cling to you
  • resist attention from others

Treatment in Infants and Toddlers

How long separation anxiety lasts varies by child. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, toddlers usually begin to overcome separation anxiety at around age 2. They may have bouts after that, but symptoms begin to lessen. Typically, medical treatment isn’t necessary in infants and toddlers.

It’s important that you don’t give in every time your child cries. This is because they’ll figure out that this method gets results and use it in the future to prevent separation.

It’s helpful to expose your child to other caregivers to help them learn to trust other people. Their anxiety will taper off once your child learns to trust other adults and understands that you will always come back. To make things easier, you should establish some consistency. If your toddler is in daycare, for example, try to arrive for pickup at the same time every day. Also remember to talk to your toddler about concepts of time in ways they can understand. For example, tell them you’re coming back after snack time, instead of stating a certain amount of hours. Following through with your promises will also reduce the longevity of separation anxiety.

As your infant transitions into the toddler years (ages 1 to 3), they’ll begin to understand the concept of time and start to remember that you’ll come back. And generally, they’ll slowly overcome separation anxiety.

Separation Anxiety and Children

In some cases, separation anxiety may persist throughout childhood. It’s common during elementary and middle school, when children are going through adjustments and encountering new challenges. School can increase your child’s anxiety, and they may not want to go.

At this stage, separation anxiety may only be temporary. It can occur if there have been changes at home or in school, such as:

  • a new schedule
  • a move
  • the death of a family pet or a relative

Patience is the key in such cases, as the anxiety tends to ease over time.

Your child may display the following symptoms:

  • insecurity, especially when alone
  • sleeping difficulties
  • frequent nightmares
  • clinginess
  • desire not to go to school
  • tantrums
  • follow parents around house
  • excessive worries about physical harm
  • physical complaints, such as stomachaches and headaches

Persistent separation anxiety in school-aged children may be indicative of a health disorder.

Treatment in Children

Cases of severe anxiety may require a combination of treatments to reduce your child’s stress. Your doctor may recommend:

  • antianxiety medications
  • psychotherapy
  • family counseling
  • family classes
  • new parenting techniques

Treatment methods can help your child deal with their feelings in a positive way.

Long Term Outlook

Separation anxiety generally starts to ease after the age of 2 in most children. While separation anxiety is a normal part of development for infants and toddlers, long-term separation anxiety in children may be indicative of a mental health disorder and should be checked out by your doctor. Severe problems throughout childhood may be indicative of an anxiety disorder. Such disorders may get better with age, but the outcome of treatment is best when they’re detected early. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

Content licensed from:

Written by: Kristeen Moore
Medically reviewed on: Mar 18, 2016: Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PMHNP-BC

This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to replace the care and information received from your health care provider. Please consult a health care professional with any health concerns you may have.
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