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Separation Anxiety in Young Children

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As a former infant and toddler teacher, I have witnessed on numerous mornings a young child, who was previously comfortable coming to day care, suddenly throwing a tantrum as the parent tries to leave, clinging to the parent's arm or leg as he or she tries to walk out the door. While this was distressing, I wondered what had happened the previous day to suddenly lead to such behavior. It was even more upsetting to the surprised parent as he or she was on their way to work.

Similar situations are frequently described by parents who submit questions through our AskERIC service, whether it is with a toddler who attends day care or with a 9-month-old who is going to stay at grandma's while mom and dad go out to dinner. As a parent or caregiver, it can be extremely difficult to resist a crying child who throws herself into your arms as you try to leave.

Such behaviors, while disturbing to the adults around them, are a sign that the child is reaching an important developmental milestone. At about 8 months of age, children will begin to become anxious, clinging, and easily frightened about unfamiliar people or objects (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1993). This phase is commonly called separation or stranger anxiety. Separation anxiety usually peaks between 10 and 18 months and then gradually fades during the last half of the second year.

Keep in mind, however, that these age ranges are only general guidelines. Because of individual differences in children's development, some children may never experience major episodes of separation anxiety while others may not display any of the behaviors associated with separation anxiety until the second year with the behaviors lasting until beyond the third birthday (Eisenberg, Murkoff, & Hathaway, 1994). In addition, separation anxiety can be more exaggerated for children who are experiencing other stresses in their life such as: moving, a new child care situation, the arrival of a new sibling, or relationship problems between the parents.

Why Do Children Have Separation Anxiety?

The child's unwillingness to leave a parent or caregiver is a sign that attachments have developed between the caregiver and child (Brazelton, 1992). The child is beginning to understand that each object (including people) in the environment is different and permanent (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1993). This means that your child is learning that there is only one of you. In addition, the child begins to understand that when he cannot see you, you have gone somewhere else, and he shows these anxious behaviors because he wants you to remain close to him.

Also, because young children cannot yet understand time, they do not know when or even if you will ever come back (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1993). As a result, a child may fuss and cry when you go into the next room, scream when you leave him with someone else, and may even refuse to go to sleep at night. Fortunately, as children get older, their memories will begin to provide comfort as they learn that you will come back. This is why it is important to keep your promise to return at a certain time (after nap or after snack time) so that they begin to build these memories of your return.

Nevertheless, it can be confusing to watch a toddler who is growing more independent everyday by putting on her own shoes or wanting to feed herself actually become more dependent with these emotional displays. It is important to remember that the child is working through a stage where she is struggling between feelings of striking out on her own and yet wanting to stay safe by your side (Eisenberg, Murkoff, & Hathaway, 1994).

How Can I Help My Child with Separation Anxiety?

Here are a few suggestions for easing separation anxiety.

* Because your child will be more susceptible to separation anxiety when tired, hungry, or sick, try to schedule departures after naps and mealtimes (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1993).

* Prepare your child before the separation occurs by reassuring him that you will return (Brazelton, 1992). Let him know when you will be back. Because your child cannot understand time, use concepts that he can understand such as "I'll be back when you are having snack," or "I'll be back on the day that you go to the library." Be sure to stick to that time or call if there is an emergency or something that will delay your return.

* Take the anxiety seriously and react with understanding, patience, and confidence ("I know you don't want me to leave, but I will be back after lunch") instead of by teasing ("Oh, you're so silly crying like that") or annoyance ("You make me feel so mad when you cry like that!") (Eisenberg, Murkoff, & Hathaway, 1994).

* Stay calm, matter-of-fact and, sympathetic. "I know you are upset that I have to go into the kitchen, but I need to cut up the carrots for dinner." Go into the kitchen with the child on your leg if necessary (Eisenberg, Murkoff, & Hathaway, 1994).

* Make your toddler feel secure when you're around by giving lots of love and attention. Young children will learn faster when they receive necessary attention and affection than by the parent's taking a "learn the hard way" attitude (Eisenberg, Murkoff, & Hathaway, 1994).

* "Practice" short-term separations around the house (American Academy of Pediatrics, 1993; Eisenberg, Murkoff, & Hathaway, 1994). As you go into the next room out of sight, talk to your baby: "Where did mommy go?" When you return, let her know: "Here I am!" These repeated separations can help your child learn that your disappearance is only temporary.

* Don't sneak away from your child (Eisenberg, Murkoff, & Hathaway, 1994). While tempting, this approach will only lead the child to be more guarded and resistant the next time you leave.

* Try to keep your own anxieties (difficulty in letting go, anxiety about the caregiver, guilt about leaving) under control. If your child senses or sees your distress at leaving, that will tell him that there must be something wrong (Eisenberg, Murkoff, & Hathaway, 1994).

Additional Resources

Bailey, Becky. (1992). "Mommy, don't leave me!" Helping toddlers and parents deal with separation. Dimensions of Early Childhood, 20(3), 25-27, 39.

Coping with Separation Anxiety from the National Parent Information Network
http://npin.org/library/pre1998/n00205/n00205.html

Easing Separation Anxiety from the National Network for Child Care
http://www.nncc.org/Guidance/dc11_ease.transit.html

Separation: Ways to Ease the Pain of Everyday Losses from the North Dakota Cooperative Extension
http://www.ext.nodak.edu/extnews/pipeline/pp-11w.htm

So This Is Normal Too? Teachers and Parents Working Out Developmental Issues in Young Children by Deborah Hewitt. Published in 1995 by Redleaf Press.
http://npin.org/books/hewitt95.html

Sources

American Academy of Pediatrics. (1993). Caring for your baby and young child: Birth to age 5. New York: Bantam Books.

Brazelton, T. Berry. (1992). Touchpoints: Your child's emotional and behavioral development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Eisenberg, Arlene, Murkoff, Heidi, & Hathaway, Sandee. (1994). What to expect the toddler years. New York: Workman Publishing.
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