- Separation anxiety is typically a sign of healthy brain development and a strong bond with caregivers.
- Separation requires children to develop the understanding that caregivers will always come back, even during bedtime.
- Caregivers can help children to label and accept their fears of separation, practice separations, and stay calm when separations occur.
Separation anxiety, or difficulty being away from a parent or caregiver, is a normal developmental stage that tends to be most common around 8 to 24 months. However, children can experience anxiety or distress related to separation from a parent or caregiver at any point throughout childhood (and even into adulthood).
First, it is important to remember that separation anxiety is typically a sign of healthy brain development and a strong bond with caregivers. However, it is also important to mention that there are some children who have very strong bonds with their caregivers and show no signs of separation anxiety, while there are some children with very weak bonds with their caregivers who show intense separation anxiety.
Research also suggests that separation anxiety may be more likely in children who have a more inhibited temperament. Temperament is an inborn way of responding to the world that is relatively stable over time. Children with a more inhibited temperament may appear fearful or shy and less likely to approach unfamiliar adults or peers.
Yet even when they know that separation anxiety is normal and may even signal that your child has a healthy bond with you, most parents would like to find a way to make separation less painful for their children and for themselves.
Research-Backed Tips for Preventing and Addressing Separation Anxiety
1. Help your child to label and accept their fears about separation. For example, “You feel sad when Daddy has to leave for work. It’s OK to feel sad about that” or “You are feeling nervous that Mommy might leave you. I understand why you might feel that way.” Research suggests that this type of emotion coaching helps to reduce children’s anxiety.
Parents are often worried about labeling and validating separation fears because they may feel like this practice would encourage or reinforce the distress around separation. However, by putting a name to the emotion and validating it, you are helping to improve your child’s emotional regulation abilities and thus ultimately helping them to manage their anxiety around separation.
2. Regularly practice separations and build up to harder and longer separations. Many parents of children with separation anxiety start to avoid any type of separation because they know their child will become distressed. However, avoiding separations will likely only make your child’s anxiety worse.
Instead, regularly practice separations, starting with separations that are easiest for your child (such as shorter separations or separations where they are left with familiar people or in a familiar place) and very gradually build up to more difficult situations. This gradual approach is likely to be less distressing than the “rip the band-aid” type of approach, in which the first separation is long or difficult so that the child can “get over it.” Research finds that interventions that advise parents to use this type of gradual exposure to the feared situation may be effective in reducing children’s anxiety.
3. Praise children when they successfully face a difficult separation. Interventions for separation anxiety also advise parents to praise children when they successfully face a difficult separation. For example, “I know you were nervous about walking away from Mommy’s side at the playground but you walked away to play with your friends anyway. That was really a brave thing to do and it looks like you had so much fun.”
4. Say a quick goodbye. Research finds that when parents linger when saying goodbye, their children tend to show more distress and anxiety. Children of parents who linger may also be more hesitant to engage in play once the parent leaves.
If you linger during the goodbye or leave and then return to calm your child, it can be very confusing for your child. You may also inadvertently be teaching your child that crying makes you stay longer or come back and they will start crying more as a result.
Research also suggests that it is particularly confusing when you continue to talk with the caregiver after you have said goodbye and that this will likely lead to more distress and crying. Although it might seem cruel in the moment, the kindest thing you can do for your child is to leave immediately after you say goodbye, even if they cry or protest your departure.
5. Have a goodbye ritual. A goodbye ritual is something that you do every time you separate from your child. This can involve a special handshake or hug, a song that you sing together, hugging and kissing in a particular order, or something that you always say to them.
Rituals and routines like this can be soothing and may also help your child to know what is coming. Research finds that goodbye rituals can help to reduce distress and anxiety in children.
6. Do not sneak out. Many parents think that separation will be easier if they sneak out while the child is distracted. However, research finds that this practice is actually associated with more distress and anxiety in infants when they realize that their parents have left.
Also, make sure that you ask caregivers to not immediately distract your child but to provide empathy and comfort instead. Research finds that distracting children may temporarily reduce crying but lead to more crying in the long run. Research also suggests that parents should initiate the goodbye rather than the caregiver, which is not possible when you sneak out.
7. Stay calm, neutral, and confident during the separation. Even if you are also nervous or sad about the separation, make sure to maintain a neutral facial expression and project confidence. Research suggests that children will mirror your emotions and behavior during times of separation.
Often when a child experiences separation anxiety, parents become nervous about their reaction and then the parent’s anxiety may feed into the child’s anxiety. Try to avoid this vicious cycle by using “self-talk” to control your own anxiety. For example, you may remind yourself that your child is safe and that learning how to separate from parents is an important skill for children to learn.
8. Know that it will get better with time. It is heartbreaking to see your child crying when you separate from them and it is so tempting to just change your plans and stay with your child. However, it is important to remember that the crying and protests will improve over time for nearly every child. Research finds that infants seem to show the most crying and fussing on the first day of separation and that crying and fussing decrease on subsequent days.