Separation Anxiety in Toddlers

Separation Anxiety in Toddlers: Easing the Stress and Managing Symptoms
Posted on 04/27/2016

Separation anxiety disorder is a condition in which a child becomes fearful and nervous when away from home or separated from a loved one -- usually a parent or other caregiver -- to whom the child is attached. Some children also develop physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches at the thought of being separated. The fear of separation causes great distress to the child and may interfere with the child's normal activities, such as going to school or playing with other children.

Children go through feelings of separation anxiety for different reasons, but on a basic level they believe their survival is dependent on having a primary caregiver close by. Toddlers are also too young to understand the concept of time. Leaving them in a room for a few minutes with a babysitter or at daycare for a few hours feels like the same amount of time for them. Erin Boyd-Soisson, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Human Development at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania says separation anxiety is "typically most prevalent between 8 and 18 months or so." "This anxiety serves to keep the child close to the caregiver, who is their source of love and safety," says Dr. Boyd-Soisson.

Symptoms of separation anxiety:

  • Excessive distress or clinging when separated from the primary caregiver, including throwing a tantrum
  • Recurrent reluctance to go anywhere because of fear of separation
  • Reluctance to go to sleep without the significant adult nearby
  • Nightmares
  • Repeated physical complaints
  • Impairment of school, social, or personal functioning as a result of anxiety

Although it may be difficult to hear a child cry, remember that separation anxiety does have a positive aspect: It indicates that a healthy attachment has bonded a caregiver and child and the symptoms usually subside once the caregiver is out of sight. Here are some suggestions on how to ease separation anxiety:

Try a transitional object. Having a reminder of Mom or Dad may help your toddler cope in your absence. When you go out, leave him with a personal memento. It can be anything — a photograph, an old sweater of yours, or a special pin for him to wear. It's possible that the token might have the opposite effect by serving as a constant reminder, so check with the babysitter to see if your child seemed agitated by it.

Schedules. Keeping a regular routine can help children develop a feeling of control over daily situations. If the child knows what to expect throughout the day it will make transitioning a lot easier. Say, "See you later, alligator" or share a secret handshake as a clear and consistent indicator when saying goodbye.

Frontloading. Prepare your child before the separation occurs by reassuring him that you will return. Treat the anxiety seriously and react with understanding, patience, and confidence: "I know you don't want me to go away right now, but I will be back after school."

Validate the feelings. Stay calm, matter-of-fact and, sympathetic: "I know you are upset that I have to go into the kitchen, but I need to cook the chicken for dinner."

Get Prepared. Practice short-term separations around the house. As you go into the next room out of sight, talk to your child: "Where did mommy go?" When you return, let her know: "Here I am!" These repeated separations might help your child learn that your disappearance is only temporary. Do not sneak away from your child. While tempting, this approach will only lead to more difficulty the next time you leave. Watch your child to see if her separation anxiety appears extreme, says Julia F. Heberle, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. Dr. Heberle recommends analyzing the situation surrounding your child's feelings. Is there parental conflict, divorce, or something wrong with the child-care setting? If so, the symptoms of separation anxiety may be amplified. If a toddler is showing excessive symptoms, such as vomiting or unrelenting worry, contact your pediatrician.


Dealing with Separation Anxiety

Children’s Health; Separation Anxiety in Children

Psychology Today: Separation Anxiety