Has your laid back, happy-go-lucky child suddenly started having meltdowns the second you pass him to a caregiver or family member? Has she started to scream and cry when you walk out of the room, even for a second? Are you beginning to wonder what is happening, and what you’re doing wrong?
Well, I have some good news, and bad news.
The bad news: Your baby is likely suffering from separation anxiety.
The good news: It is considered a completely normal emotional milestone for young children, and will likely pass soon.
According to the Mayo Clinic, separation anxiety in children is a natural occurrence that likely begins to rear its ugly head beginning between six and eight months. It typically peaks between 10 and 18 months, and symptoms begin to alleviate close to 24 months. Most often it is not a result of any single event in the child’s life, but rather it is viewed as a completely expected phase in the typically developing child. Signs that your child may be experiencing separation anxiety include:
- Crying, screaming, or lashing out when left alone or with a caretaker
- Waking up more often during the night
- Waking up earlier in the morning
- Lack of interest in playing alone
Despite being a natural rite of passage for small children, behaviors can also be brought on or exacerbated by what babies consider dramatic life changes, such as:
- The birth of a new sibling
- A new home or living environment
- Changes in childcare providers
- Shifts in parental routines that impact baby’s routine
- Stress or tension within the family
Why does this anxiety start to occur at a particular age? It all goes back to when babies are first born. In their first few months of life, they lack the ability to cognitively understand that you still exist, even when they don’t see you. That game of peek-a-boo you play, hiding behind a blanket and popping out at your child? He/she genuinely views this as a magic trick in which you physically disappear and reappear. At a very young age, your child also has trouble distinguishing one adult from another.
However, as children begin to grow, they start to recognize that you do exist behind that blanket, they begin to differentiate their parents from other adults, and they don’t like it when you leave them. Babies at this age also lack a bank of memories to soothe or remind them that you will return. It does not take them long to identify that crying, screaming, and otherwise throwing a fit is an easy way to get your attention and reassurance. Though we don’t typically think of it as a positive, this behavior really signals that your baby is making a strong connection with you as a parent.
While logically, we understand that this behavior is just a phase, it can be very difficult to get through. The stress and anxiety that children experience can make adults feel stressed and anxious, leaving parents desperate to find solutions.
More good news! There are many strategies you can try in order to help ease the distress of separation anxiety, as well as many parental behaviors you can avoid. Keep in mind, every child (and parent) is different, and it may take some time to determine which strategies work (or don’t work) for you and your child.
Strategies to try:
- Leave (but not really!): Try walking out of the child’s line of sight—into the next room, on the other side of some furniture, or even behind that peek-a-boo blanket. Leave the child for a few seconds or minutes at a time, but return quickly. Try extending the amount of time slowly. This helps build the child’s confidence that you will (really!) return. *Perhaps it goes without saying, but be sure that while the baby can’t see you, you can see him/her. Never leave a young child unsupervised.
- Leave for short periods of time: Practice leaving your child with a caregiver for short periods of time—half an hour, an hour—and increase the time gradually. This helps baby recognize that you will return, and can help you become accustomed to leaving baby a little at a time.
- Invite the caregiver to interact with baby while you are still around: You don’t want your baby to associate his/her new caregiver with you leaving. This can be stressful for everyone. If you invite the trusted person to spend some time you and your baby altogether, this will help your baby feel more comfortable with this new person. It is also an opportunity for you to practice leaving the room for a few minutes at a time to see how baby will respond to your absence (even for a short period of time).
- Provide a comfort item: Does your baby have a favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or other item? Leave this with him/her when you go. The special item can act as a comfort in your absence.
- Be sure baby is fed and well rested: We have all witnessed the tornado that is a hungry or tired baby. Being tired and hungry causes stress for your baby, and leaving during this stressful time can only serve to make any possible tantrum worse. If possible, leave just after your baby has eaten or had time to properly wake up from a nap.
- Talk it up!: Tell your child all about the exciting things that he/she will get to do while you are gone. Based on age, your child may or may not understand everything you are saying, but baby will certainly respond to the tone of your voice. Once your caretaker arrives (or you reach the caretaker) encourage this person to also use a similarly encouraging tone.
- Remind your child that you will come back: Again, your baby’s ability to understand what you are saying will depend on age. However, giving your child concrete reminders that you will return for them can help ease their fears. Since children do not have an appropriate sense of time, be sure to use specific, child friendly timing examples such as “ I will return after your nap,” or “I will come back after you eat snack.” Be careful though—only use these examples if you intend to show up when you say. The excessively worried child may become even more anxious if you do not arrive when you say you will.
- Encourage your caregiver to distract your baby once you leave: Once you leave, your baby will almost certainly begin to cry out for you. Luckily, babies are most often very easily distracted. Ask the caregiver to make funny faces, offer a stimulating toy, or otherwise distract your child to ease the transition. The caregiver may also try reminding the child that you will return.
- Remind yourself that the crying will stop: Your child is not the only one who suffers when separation anxiety presents itself. It will no doubt break your heart to leave your baby behind while he/ she screams for you. However, it may help to remind yourself that your child will adapt and the crying will likely stop within a few minutes of your exit. You will be pleasantly surprised to return to a happy, adjusted child!
- Create a return ritual: When dealing with separation anxiety, we have a tendency to overlook the reunion process. Give your child something to look forward to by creating a routine that you always follow. This can be as simple as playing with your child for a few minutes when you return, coming up with a song you sing together, or just give each other a lot of big hugs!
As a parent, of course you only want what is best for your child. It is not easy to see your baby in pain because he/she is upset to see you go. Because of this, many parents will do anything they can to make the crying stop. However, you may be unintentionally encouraging negative, attention seeking behaviors as a result of how you respond when your child begins throwing a fit. Here are a few examples of parental behaviors to avoid when your child is struggling with separation anxiety:
Strategies to avoid:
- Taking a long time to say goodbye: The goodbye is going to be upsetting for your child, no matter when it happens. Dragging it out, or taking an extended amount of time to leave will only cause the child more stress. Give a quick hug and kiss, and then head out.
- Returning repeatedly: Once you leave, do not go back until you intend to take your child with you. We know it hurts to hear your baby crying, but going back into the room, just to leave again will only make matters worse. Return only if it is absolutely necessary. If you have forgotten to leave something, try calling the caregiver to meet you at an entrance out of your child’s field of vision. Again, remind yourself that the crying will stop.
- Sneaking out: This is a strategy that a lot of parents try with their children. They will leave the child with the caregiver who is trying to distract the child, while the parent sneaks out. Sure, this will make you feel better because you won’t hear your child crying. But this does not mean that your child did not begin to cry when he/she realized that you left. Trying to deceive your child is not a strategy that is widely advised.
- Avoiding situations in which separation anxiety will occur: Believe me, we understand the desire to avoid your child’s separation anxiety. It can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. But it will also pass. The crying is a healthy way for your child to express his/her feelings about you leaving, and leaving creates an opportunity to build trust between yourself and your child. Every time you leave and come back, they will trust you a little bit more. If they are never left, in an attempt to avoid upsetting them, you will miss out on a chance to grow together.
By avoiding these potentially upsetting behaviors, your child is sure to move out of this unpleasant baby phase at a pace that is normal for a typically developing child.
When is it more than just a phase?
While separation anxiety is a phase all children will experience at some point in their early lives, there are some rare instances in which the anxiety is more severe and the child does not grow out of it at a normal rate. At this point, it is important to recognize the signs that this may be more than just a phase. Though uncommon, separation anxiety disorders can occur in young children. These disorders are marked by behaviors that are more extreme than those exhibited in typically occurring childhood separation anxiety. Examples of these behaviors may include:
- Headaches or stomachaches when the child thinks a parent is about to leave
- Constant fear of permanent separation from parents (often as a result of death, injury, illness, or kidnapping)
- Worry about separation with parents present, even after reassurance that the parent is not leaving
- Frequent nightmares in which the child is permanently taken from parents
If your child is consistently exhibiting these behaviors, you may consider contacting your child’s pediatrician, as a more thorough health evaluation may be recommended.
As a parent, it is important to remember, though difficult, exhausting, frustrating, and upsetting, separation anxiety is a normal process for all young children. It is likely not the result of anything that you, as the parent, did or did not do. And while there is no single cure or strategy that will help to ease the anxiety for all children, it is our hope that you will find an approach that works well for you and your child until this challenging phase has passed.
Until then… take a deep breath, and remember: it will not last forever.