Separation Anxiety

By Vanessa Rasmussen, © 2004, All rights reserved.

It is normal for toddlers and preschool children to show a degree of anxiety over real or threatened separation from people to whom they are attached. Reluctance to be separated from one's caregiver is a normal, healthy response in young children and indicated the development of healthy attachment. But even though it's perfectly normal, it can be extremely unsettling for parents.

Separation anxiety usually begins between the ages of 8 months and 1 year and peaks between the ages of 1 and 2. However, the timing can vary widely from child to child. Some children may experience it later, around 3 or 4 years of age. Some may never experience it. And for others, there are certain life stresses that can set off feelings of separation anxiety: a new child care situation or caregiver, a new sibling, moving to a new place, or tension at home. A child who adapts to new situations easily will probably have less anxiety than the child who has a difficult time with change.

If intense separation anxiety lasts into preschool, elementary school, or beyond, then you should discuss this with your child's doctor. It may be a sign of a more severe form of anxiety known as Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD). An otherwise normal separation anxiety becomes abnormal when a child has severe, persistent anxiety about being separated from home or parents. When separated, they are constantly afraid that something horrible will happen to either them or to their primary caretaker (they or the caretaker will die, for instance). When the subject of separating is brought up, the child begins to present with somatic symptoms ranging from headaches to nausea and vomiting, with anxiety.

Here are a few tips to help you support your child through periods of separation anxiety:

  • Instead of saying goodbyes to your child, say 'see you soon' or 'I'll be back in a little while'. This reassures the child that you are going to come back and not leave them forever.
  • Help child become familiar with new surroundings and people before actually leaving the child there.
  • If you're planning to leave your child with a relative or a new babysitter, then invite that person over in advance so they can spend time together while you're present in the room.
  • Remind the child of previous brave things he or she has done. Talk about how a fictional character might handle it.
  • Prepare the child by reading books about going to preschool, pretending about going on voyages or quests.
  • Make shopping for school supplies a special event just for that child.
  • Don't prolong your departure or come back several times. Give your child your full attention when you say good-bye, and when you say you're leaving, mean it; coming back will only make things worse.

Separation anxiety doesn't have to be a problem for you or your child. Don't rush your child too much, but don't let him or her control you either. Be loving and firm, and eventually your and his or hers separation anxiety will disappear.

Copyright 2001, 2004. All rights reserved. Any reproduction of this article in whole or in part without written or verbal permission is strictly prohibited. For information about reprinting this article, contact the copyright owner: Vanessa Rasmussen, Ph.D, Starting a Day Care Center,