Coping With Separation Anxiety in Children


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Photo by Tanya Little/Shutterstock

Q: My 3-year-old is going through separation anxiety and wants only me to hold him, feed him and comfort him. It is getting very hard to drop him off at day care. He just clings and screams. It is horrible, and I feel terrible for leaving him. Help!

A: Mom guilt. As a new mom, I share your pain. My child clings to my neck and makes a scene when I drop her off at day care. I know you feel like a finalist for the worst mom of the year award. However, this behavior is very common and very normal. It occurs due to your son’s inability to grasp the concept of time and his poor understanding of when you will return. To your son, being alone for a few minutes or a few hours feels like the same amount of time. And believe it or not, his actions may be a good thing.

There is growth going on as the child tries to grasp the concept that time apart is temporary. During this phase, children begin to form their own opinions about caregivers leaving — that mom should not leave. So they cry and throw a tantrum as a way of exerting control. Between 4 and 7 months of age, babies develop a sense of object permanence as they begin realizing that things and people exist even when they’re out of sight. Babies learn that when they can’t see mom or dad, that means they’ve gone away. Kids between 8 months and 1 year old are growing into more independent toddlers, yet are even more uncertain about being separated from a parent. 

Although it may be difficult to hear and see your sweet child cry, remember separation anxiety is a good sign. It indicates that a healthy attachment has formed between parent and child. But, as you know, it is not easy on parents. Here are a few ideas to try when the time comes to leave:

  • Offer a favorite stuffed animal or soft blanket to soothe your absence.
  • Keep a regular routine so your child develops a feeling of comfort. Predictability can prepare them for when you leave.
  • When it is time to leave, leave. The more you linger, the worse it is going to get.
  • Quick departures with “See you later, alligator” or a hug and kiss typically make the transition a lot smoother.
  • Be calm and consistent. Children respond to the energy given off from caregivers. If you are upset, then they will become upset.
  • Show confidence in your child by reassuring them that you’ll be back and explain when you’ll return using concepts kids will understand (such as after lunch).
  • Give your full attention when you say goodbye, and when you say you’re leaving, mean it. Coming back only makes things worse.

Children typically rebound from the drama in less than 10 minutes. This phase will pass with consistency and follow-through. This is simply a part of growing up. Remember, you are not leaving your son, you are helping him grow into the independent, confident person we all want him to become.

Hannah Coble is a licensed clinical social worker at Cone Health Behavioral Health Hospital with a background in behavioral health and outpatient therapy. Submit your questions to "Is My Kid OK?" by emailing sherri.mcmillen@conehealth.com.

 

 

 

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