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Separation anxiety Dr Colleen Johnson, MD, pediatrician, children's Wisconsin Midtown Clinic

Hard goodbyes: Easing separation anxiety in kids

Saying goodbye to your child when you’re leaving for work, going on a trip, dropping them off at school or just going for a night out can be tough on you as a parent. It’s even harder when your child is resisting. It’s natural for your young child to feel anxious when you say goodbye. In early childhood, you may notice crying, tantrums or clinginess — all typical signs of separation anxiety. These are all healthy reactions to separation and a completely normal stage of development. Separation anxiety can begin before a child’s 1st birthday and may recur until the age of 4.

I’ll explain what separation anxiety looks like for various ages and offer some tips and tricks for helping ease your child’s separation anxiety. Fear not, parents — for most kids, it’s temporary. 

Age and stages 

  • Infants: Separation anxiety typically begins around 8 or 9 months of age, although it can begin as early as 5 months. As your baby develops, they begin to understand object permanence — the idea that something continues to exist when it can't be seen or heard — including mom and dad. Once your baby recognizes you’re gone, it can be really unsettling, leading to tears.

  • Toddlers: As toddlers become more independent, they can also become more aware of separations, leading to lots of tantrums and clinginess. For some toddlers, it may be difficult to calm down

  • Preschoolers: Change can be hard. If your child is starting a new routine, such as moving to a new daycare room or starting a preschool program, they may feel a new sense of attachment — and a new sense of anxiety. Preschoolers may not just cry or become clingy, but they can express their feelings with words as well, so you may notice pleas and attempts to persuade you to stay.

Easing separation anxiety

I know it can be tough to leave your child, but there are a few things parents and caregivers can do to ease separation anxiety. These guidelines aren’t just for kids. They can help parents, too.

  • Develop a consistent and quick “goodbye” routine: Routines are reassuring and can be as simple as a special wave through the window or a goodbye kiss, but remember to keep things quick. If you drag out the goodbye, the anxiety may linger. A predictable routine can diminish the heartache (for parents and kids) and will allow your child to build independence and trust that you’ll be back. Make sure to give your child your full attention during this quick goodbye. That call or text coming in can wait.

  • Leave without fanfare: It’s important to leave without fanfare. Tell your child you are leaving and that you will return, then go. Don’t stall or make it a bigger deal than it is.

  • Follow through on promises: For your child to develop the confidence that they can handle separation, it’s important you return at the time you promised. Since young kids can’t tell time, explain it them in ways they can understand. For example, “I’ll be back after snack time.” Or if it’s a longer time you’ll be away, rather than say three days, you can say “I’ll be back in three sleeps.”

  • Practice: Just as you would build any skill, practice leaving, if time and resources allow. Try scheduling a playdate or let the grandparents take over for an hour on the weekend to get started. Practice your goodbye routine. Give your child a chance to prepare for and manage how they feel in your absence. As your child gets used to separation, you can gradually leave for longer and travel farther.

  • Try not to give in: This is hard. Kids can be really persuasive and they tug on parents’ heartstrings. Reassure your child that they will be fine — setting consistent limits will help your child’s adjustment to separation.

  • Make sure your child is well: It is important to remember that in any goodbye moment, the separation anxiety behaviors your child exhibits may be heightened by hunger, tiredness and illness. Whenever possible, try to make sure your child is well rested, has recently had a meal or snack, and is healthy.

Other separation anxiety triggers

While saying goodbye, whether at daycare, school or when leaving the house, is the most common separation anxiety trigger, there are a couple other notable causes:

  • Going to sleep: When you put your child down for a nap or to sleep for the night, it is a time when your child will be alone for longer stretches. It can create separation anxiety, disguised as “I’m not tired right now.” For ease at nap or bedtime, establish a bedtime routine and begin that routine before your child is overtired.

  • Large gatherings: Going to a large gathering can be particularly anxiety-provoking for your child who may be afraid of so many new faces. For older toddlers and preschoolers, they may fear losing you in a crowd. Making sure your child is well rested and has a snack can help ease separation anxiety in larger crowds.

It’s important in these situations that you remain consistent in your routines using the guidelines above. As a reminder: consistency, short goodbye, leave without fanfare, and follow through on promises.

It’s rare that separation anxiety develops into something more serious called separation anxiety disorder. If you’re concerned that your child isn’t adjusting to being without you, talk to your child’s pediatrician about this and any other concern about your child’s well-being. We have helped other families facing similar issues and we are always here for you.