Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety refers to a developmental stage in which a child experiences anxiety due to separation from the primary care giver (usually the mother). This phase is fairly standard at around 8 months of age and can last until the child is 14 months old.

In young children, unwillingness to leave a parent or a caregiver is a sign that attachments have developed between the caregiver and child. The child is beginning to understand that each object (including people) in the environment is different and permanent. Young children do not yet understand time, therefore they do not know when or even if a parent will ever come back. Children at this stage struggle between the desire to strike out on their own and the need to stay safe by a parent or caregiver's side.

While separation anxieties are normal among infants and toddlers, they are inappropriate for older children and may indicate separation anxiety disorder. To be diagnosed as such, the symptoms must cause distress or affect social, academic, or job functioning and must last at least 1 month.

Infants experience various emotions as they develop, usually in a relatively predictable sequence. Before 8 months, they are so new to the world that they cannot easily gauge what is ordinary and what may be dangerous, so new situations or experiences seem usual, not frightening.

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In normal development, this early period involves establishing familiarity with the home environment, and feeling safe when parents or other known caretakers are present. After this time, lack of familiarity often produces fear as the infant recognizes that something unusual is going on.

Children recognize their parents as familiar and safe. When separated from parents, particularly when away from home, they feel threatened and unsafe. This is particularly strong when the child is between 8 and 14 months.

Separation anxiety is a normal stage in an infant's development. It helped keep our ancestors alive and helps children learn how to master their environment. It usually ends at around age 2, when toddlers begin to understand that a parent may be out of sight right now, but they will return later. At this age, a child also tends to want to test their autonomy.

Separation Anxiety. Last reviewed 10/10/2006

Sources:

  • American Academy of Pediatrics
  • Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, Revised
  • Touchpoints: Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development
  • What to Expect the Toddler Years
  • Psychiatric comorbidity in children after the 1988 earthquake in Armenia
  • DSM-IV Made Easy: The Clinician's Guide to Diagnosis
  • National Institutes of Health - National Library of Medicine