Separation Anxiety In Children

Separation Anxiety in Children

What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation Anxiety is a phase in the development of a child. It usually occurs between the ages of one and three. While going through this phase, the child does not want to be separated from his parents and becomes extremely distressed when this happens.

It is normal for small children to experience some degree of anxiety when separated from their parents. Children slowly learn that when parents leave, they do return. A lack of fear in the first few months of life shows that the infant does not discriminate yet among adults who are around him and that he did not develop a strong attachment to a particular person yet. Once the child becomes familiar with his environment and with his significant others, he develops expectations. When unexpected events happen (absence of mother, or presence of strangers), they create anxiety. Therefore, children who have experienced some degree of maternal separation are usually better able to cope with the brief absence of the mother. They have probably learned that separation is only temporary. Those children who have experienced little or no separation, are usually more distressed because they had little opportunity to learn about separation. Those children who had experienced too much separation will also be distressed, because they have learned that separation was frequent, or prolonged. Toddlers and preschoolers eventually learn how to interpret their environment, develop a sense of trust, and gradually outgrow this fear.

What Causes Separation Anxiety?
– Prolonged Separation: when children are separated from their parent for an extensive period of time.
– Strangers: the child might feel safer with some people and need time to slowly accept others.
– Overprotection: children who are overprotected might have difficulty developing a sense of independence and self-confidence.
– Family Changes: when parents get divorced, the birth of a sibling, a death in the family, illnesses.
– Changes in Routine or Transitions: a move to a different house, going on vacation, move to a different house.
– Changes in Child Care: move to a different day care, changes in caregivers.

How to Recognize Separation Anxiety
Separation Anxiety can be present in different ways:
– Child refuses to go to Day Care or school
– Child complains of not feeling good, or stomach aches
– Child is clingy
– Child has difficulty falling asleep
– Child has nightmares
– Child displays temper tantrums and crying when separating from parents
– Child talks and behaves in a way that shows he does not feel safe.

What can the Parents do?
– Become aware of your own feelings; stay calm and reassure the child that you will be back soon.
– Say “good bye” and go; continued hugs and kisses only prolong the anxiety.
– Never “sneak out”; this will only intensify the anxiety and will decrease the child’s sense of trust.
– Don’t make fun of the child and don’t punish the child
– Use transitional objects (objects that can make a child feel safe), such as teddy bears, blankets, picture of the parent.
– Reassure the child; make sure he knows you are coming back
– Prepare the child ahead of time; share your plans with the child.
– Be aware of the maturity level and emotional needs of your child
– Respect your child’s fear; don’t minimize the fear, but acknowledge it.
– Be careful how you talk about scary events in front of your child.
– Understand that it is normal for the parent to feel frustrated and guilty, in these situations.

Some children get through this phase faster than others. This should be a temporary phase and it should pass. However, if the problem persists or the child has other signs of emotional difficulties such as not eating well, not sleeping, withdrawn behavior, loosing weight, or feeling sad, you might consider seeking professional help. Play therapy with toddlers and preschoolers is a very appropriate modality to deal with disorders of anxiety.

Doris Omdahl, LMHC, RPT-S is a Licensed Mental Health Counselor who specializes in counseling to children and is a registered play therapist. She also works with individuals of all ages with eating disorders, as well as a history of sexual trauma. She practices with The Psychology andThe Counseling Group.  Website:

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