Unfortunately, teary and tantrum-filled goodbyes are a very common part of a child's earliest years. Around the first birthday, it is common for kids to develop separation anxiety, getting upset when a parent tries to leave them with someone else. Though separation anxiety is a perfectly normal part of childhood development, it can be unsettling. Understanding what your child is going through and having a few coping strategies in mind can go a long way toward helping both of you get through it.
How Separation Anxiety Develops
When your baby was first born, you likely noticed that he or she adapted pretty well to other caregivers. This is typical for most infants. You probably felt more anxiety about being separated than your child did when you first left him or her with a relative, babysitter, or a day care provider! As long as their needs are being met, babies younger than 6 months typically adjust well to other people.
Sometime between 4-7 months, a baby typically develops a sense of object permanence, and begins to learn that things and people exist even when they're out of sight. This is when babies typically start to play the "dropsy" game, when they drop things over the side of the high chair, look for them, and expect the adult to retrieve what they've dropped (which, once retrieved, get dropped again!).
The same thing occurs with their parents. Babies realize that there's only one of you, and when he or she can't see you, that means you've gone away. However, at this point, your child doesn't yet understand the concept of time and doesn't know if or when you'll come back. So whether you're in the kitchen, in the next bedroom, or at the office, it's all the same to your toddler. You've disappeared. Your child will do whatever he or she can to prevent this from happening.
Between 8 months old 1 year old, your child is growing into a more independent toddler - yet he or she is even more uncertain about being separated from you. This is when separation anxiety typically develops, and your child may become agitated and upset whenever you try to leave him or her. Whether you need to go into the next room for just a few seconds, leave your child with a sitter for the evening, or drop off your child at day care, you may find that your child cries, clings to you, and resists attention from others.
The timing of separation anxiety can vary widely from child to child. Some kids may experience it later, between 18 months and 2-1/2 years of age. Some may never experience it. And for others, there are certain life stresses that can trigger feelings of anxiety about being separated from a parent: a new child care situation or caregiver, a new sibling, moving to a new place, or tension at home.
How long does separation anxiety last? It varies from child to child. And it also depends on the child and how the parent responds. In some cases, depending on a child's temperament, separation anxiety can be persistent from infancy and last through the elementary school years. In cases where the separation anxiety interferes with an older child's normal activities, it can be the sign of a deeper anxiety disorder. In cases where the separation anxiety appears out of the blue in an older child, it can be an indication of another problem that the child may be dealing with, like bullying or abuse.
Keep in mind that separation anxiety is usually different from the normal feelings an older child has when he or she doesn't want a parent to leave. In those cases, the distress can usually be overcome if the child is distracted enough, and those feelings will not re-emerge until the parent returns and the child remembers that the parent left.
And your child does understand the effect his or her behavior has on you. If you come running back into the room every time your child cries and then stay with your child longer or cancel your plans completely, your child will continue to use this strategy to avoid separation.
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
© 1995-2009 The Nemours Foundation. All rights reserved.
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