Separation Anxiety: We’re Here For You

Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development… but that doesn’t make it any easier. We’ve got your back with this handy guide, full of all the info you need.

Did your little one go from happily greeting new faces to cowering in fear? Maybe they used to toddle off happily to nursery, but now scream and cry the moment you leave them. If so, they probably have separation anxiety.

Separation anxiety and fear of strangers are a completely normal part of a child’s development - but that doesn’t make them any less harrowing. To help you cope with the tears (and guilt - it’s OK!), we’ve put together this handy guide, covering why it happens, what’s normal, tips to try, and when to seek help. 

Why do children get separation anxiety?

Every day, your little one is learning something new. As they develop and explore, their understanding of the world - and their place in it - grows. A new born baby does not understand that they are utterly dependent upon another person, but, by the age of around 6-12 months, this understanding has developed.

In other words, the reason children develop separation anxiety is that they now understand how important you are to their wellbeing. So, if your little one is suffering from separation anxiety, this is actually a sign that you’ve bonded really well!

What’s considered ‘normal’?

Separation anxiety can develop as early as 6 months, and as late as 3 years, but most will grow out of it past this point. Your little one may go through several phases, but each one will usually only last 2 to 3 weeks. 

Some children never experience separation anxiety (which is normal, too. Don’t panic!). Others may experience bouts of separation anxiety after big life events, such as gaining a new sibling or starting nursery.

It’s worth noting that old children may experience some distress at being separated from you, but they will usually be able to be distracted and, with a little coaxing, get on with an activity or settle down to play. This is different from the intense worry of separation anxiety - but we’ll go more into when to seek help further down.

How can I help my child cope with separation anxiety?

When your little one is suffering from separation anxiety, it can be overwhelmingly tempting to just stay with them. However, helping your little one to cope with their feelings and learn to be apart from you is important for their future development. Here are a few tips to try at home:

  • Time it right.
    If your little one is experiencing a lot of separation anxiety, now may not be the time to start a new nursery or hire a new nanny. Additionally, try to avoid leaving your little one when they are tired and/or hungry, instead timing your goodbyes for after naps and meals.

  • Practice.
    Try short separations first - maybe you could leave them with a grandparent or friend while you pop to the shops for ten minutes. Then, gradually increase your time apart. You could also try a fun game of peekaboo, or allow them to crawl to another room, alone, for a couple of minutes (so long as it’s safe, of course).

  • Build familiarity.
    If someone new is going to be caring for your little one, or if they’re going to start a new nursery, spend some time with that person or at that place together, first. Experiencing new things with you will make them easier to cope with alone, later.

  • Create a positive goodbye routine.
    When saying goodbye to your little one, stay calm and cheerful - if you’re tense or upset, it will only worry them more. Let them know when you will be back (even if their understanding of time isn’t very good!) and maybe mention something you will do together later, so they can look forward to it. Importantly, don’t try sneaking off without a goodbye!

  • Avoid coming back.
    Once you’ve said goodbye, leave! Coming back because you hear your child crying may teach them to repeat the behaviour.

  • Follow through on promises.
    If you tell your little one you’ll be back at a certain time, make sure you’re there. This is really important, as it teaches your child that they can rely on you to return, and that they can make it through the time apart.

  • Try a comforting toy or object.
    Lastly, having something to hold onto and self-soothe with can help. Try a favourite toy, or a scarf that smells of you.

When to get help.

If severe separation anxiety persists into primary school, and interferes with either you or your little one’s ability to engage in normal activities, they may have developed a rare condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder. This is treatable, and any concerns should be discussed with your doctor to ensure your child gets the help they need.

Symptoms of SAD include:
  • Panic or tantrums at moments of separation
  • Excessive clinginess, even at home
  • Refusal to sleep alone
  • Repeated nightmares about separation
  • Frequent nausea, stomachaches, headaches, muscle aches or tension
  • Refusal to go to school
  • Fear of being alone
  • Excessively worrying about getting lost, the safety of themselves or family members, or sleeping away from home

Treatment for SAD may include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Family therapy, and/or medication.

So, to sum up, separation anxiety is a completely normal part of your child’s development as they learn to be independent of you. However, by practicing together, and staying calm and cheerful, you and your little one will soon be happily waving goodbye at the nursery gate.

I hope the information in this blog has helped! If you have any questions or a topic you want to hear about, drop us a message via our Instagram.


Lizzie Corscaden
Content Creator at MEplace


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