It is very normal for young children to experience separation anxiety when being left by a parent. Separation anxiety tends to emerge at about 8-12 months old and can be very intense (especially between the ages of 18 months and 3 years).
Typical behaviour includes crying and clinging and signs of distress when a parent moves out of sight or just too far away. Sometimes children cling to just one parent – this can be exhausting and emotionally draining for that parent and feel like a rejection for the excluded parent.
Here are a few tips that might help if your little one is experiencing separation anxiety.
Tips for handling separation anxiety
- Encourage social interaction from an early age to help your little one get used to being in different surroundings with different people. (This also helps to keep parents sane!)
- Don’t let separation anxiety feed working mum’s guilt. There is no evidence of a connection between separation anxiety and having a working mother. Children of stay at home mums are just as likely to experience it.
- Familiarise your little one to new surroundings before leaving him/her. Stay together for a first visit.
- Don’t be tempted to sneak off to avoid the wails of distress. Sneaking off is likely to put your little one on constant red alert for fear that you will disappear again. Say goodbye and leave decisively and cheerfully. Hanging around makes it worse.
- Take a break if you are finding the constant demands hard to handle. As long as your little one is in a safe place and being cared for then there is no harm in leaving him/her for a short time so that you can recharge your batteries.
Separation anxiety tends to fade naturally by about 4 years old. You can help to prepare children for changes that involve separation (such as going back to work or starting school) by reading books together – see these Books for helping children cope with change and Starting school books for ideas – or these Books to help children with anxiety. If separation anxiety persists, you might need to teach your child some coping strategies (check out this simple Finger Breathing idea as a starting point). Rarely, some older children experience separation anxiety disorder which can be accompanied by irrational fear that something bad will happen to parents when they are out of sight – seek help if you are worried.