The doctor is in: Separation anxiety

How can I help my baby or toddler get over separation anxiety? 

We have all seen a young child try to prevent a preferred caregiver from leaving them by crying, whining and clinging. Separation anxiety is a normal part of a child’s development with infants frequently demonstrating separation anxiety around 9 months of age and toddlers often having trouble separating between 15-18 months of age. These difficulties typically improve over time and with practice. Here are a few tips to support a child (and parent) in separating successfully.

Like adults, kids do better in emotionally challenging situations when they are not already hungry, tired or not feeling well when the situation starts, so try to ensure your child is well-fed and well-rested prior to separation when possible. Then, develop a quick and consistent good-bye routine that you can use with your child as you are leaving. Using a good-bye routine and sticking to it will help your child know what to expect and remind you of what to do even if your child is really upset during separation. 

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Ideally, your routine will include calming words and kid-friendly language to let your child know they are safe and you’ll see them soon. It is helpful to use time markers of your child’s day (e.g., before snack, during free play) to indicate when you will be back. For example, you could tell your child “Good-bye! I love you and I will be back after your nap time. Have fun until I get back!” Then you would give your child a quick hug or kiss and leave quickly. 

The longer you linger, the longer your child will stay anxious or upset. It can also be helpful to intentionally practice separating using your good-bye routine for lower stakes events (e.g., leaving your child with another family member while you go to the store) to prepare for more novel transitions (e.g., staying with a new babysitter, going to daycare/preschool).

Jamie Travis, Ph.D., Pediatric Psychologist, Akron Children’s Hospital

Photo provided by Akron Children’s Hospital