Preschool Separation Anxiety
It’s a heartbreaking scene most parents are familiar with – a child’s cries and desperate clinging as mom or dad tries to drop them off at school or childcare. This distress at being separated from parents is developmentally normal, peaking between 18 months to 3 years of age.
While difficult to witness, separation anxiety is a healthy indicator of your child’s attachment to you. With understanding and gradual practice, you can help your child gain the confidence to handle brief periods apart. In this blog post, we will explore the causes, symptoms, and strategies for easing separation fears.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is a child’s fear of being separated from their parents or caregivers. It is a normal developmental stage that is most pronounced between the ages of around 18 months to 3 years.
Separation anxiety peaks between 12-18 months of age when babies become more aware of themselves as separate individuals from their parents or caregiver. They realize that a parent continues to exist even when out of sight. This causes anxiety when a child is separated from their attachment figure. Separation anxiety continues through the preschool years but generally lessens with age as a child becomes more confident and secure.
Causes of separation anxiety
There are several potential causes of separation anxiety in children:
Separation anxiety is a normal part of development as babies start to understand their separateness from caregivers. Growth in cognitive skills and the ability to anticipate events allows toddlers to understand separation, triggering anxiety. As children’s emotional, physical and cognitive abilities grow, separation anxiety usually fades.
Major life changes and disruptions to a child’s routine can exacerbate separation anxiety. Starting daycare, moving to a new home, parents’ separation or divorce, a new sibling, or changing schools can all contribute to separation fears.
A child’s innate temperament also plays a role. Children who are shy, getting upset easily, or have trouble adjusting to change tend to have more separation anxiety. Anxious parents may also pass on a tendency toward anxious behaviors.
Symptoms of separation anxiety
Common signs of separation anxiety in children include:
- Crying, tantrums, pleading or clinging when a parent tries to leave
- Refusing to go to school or daycare
- Physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches
- Trouble sleeping and nightmares about separation
- Anxiety about being alone or without parents
How to help your child with separation anxiety
If your child struggles with being apart from you, there are several strategies you can use to help ease their separation anxiety:
Prepare your child for separation
Talk about what will happen in advance and explain routines. Give warnings like “We have to leave in 10 minutes.” Knowing what to expect prevents surprises.
Make a gradual transition
Start with brief separations and slowly build up to longer durations. For example, first spend a few minutes apart while you are home, then work up to leaving home for brief errands before trying longer separations like school.
Be understanding and patient
Validate your child’s feelings instead of dismissing concerns. Offer reassurance that you will return and use calming strategies like hugs or positive self-talk. Avoid punishing or shaming for separation anxiety.
Give your child some control over separations when possible. Allow choices over what to bring or wear or how to say goodbye. Build confidence and self-reliance with practice being away from you.
Seek professional help
If anxiety severe and persistent despite your efforts, talk to your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional. They can assess if an anxiety disorder is present and provide tools to help.
Additional tips for helping your child with separation anxiety
Here are some other ideas for easing separation fears:
- Create a goodbye ritual like a special handshake or saying. Rituals provide comfort and reassurance.
- Be consistent with routines surrounding separation. Follow regular schedules for school and activities.
- Avoid power struggles over leaving. Stay calm and acknowledge their feelings.
- Praise bravery and self-reliance after separations. Comment on how they handled it well.
With patience and gradual practice, separation anxiety is usually outgrown in the preschool years. Consistent support helps your child gain confidence to handle time apart. If you have ongoing struggles, seek advice from your pediatrician.
Separation anxiety can be challenging for both parents and children. Try not to exacerbate your child’s distress by getting frustrated. Instead, empathize with their fears while encouraging independence. With time and consistency, separation anxiety lessens for most children by ages 3 to 5.
If excessive anxiety persists despite your efforts, consult a pediatrician or mental health professional for additional guidance. Keep in mind that someday you may look back wistfully on the days when your little one couldn’t bear to leave your side even for a moment. Their desire to remain close shows the strength of your loving bond. Learn here more about child preschool habits and growth.
Q: At what age does separation anxiety peak?
A: Separation anxiety typically peaks between 12-18 months of age when babies realize their separateness from caregivers. It remains common through the preschool years.
Q: What causes separation anxiety in toddlers and children?
A: Main causes include normal development as children become more aware of themselves as individuals, major life changes that disrupt routine, and innate temperament.
Q: What are signs of separation anxiety in my child?
A: Common symptoms include crying, tantrums, clinging, refusing school, physical complaints, trouble sleeping, and expressing fear about being away from parents.
Q: Should I just give in to my child’s separation fears?
A: Giving in reinforces the anxiety. Instead, empathize but gently encourage independence. Start with very brief separations.
Q: How can I make leaving easier for my anxious child?
A: Strategies include preparing them in advance, creating goodbye rituals, allowing choices, praising bravery, and building up separations gradually.
Q: What should I do if my child’s separation anxiety seems extreme?
A: If anxiety seems excessive and persistent despite your efforts, consult your pediatrician or a child mental health professional for additional guidance.
Q: Will my clingy child eventually outgrow separation anxiety?
A: Most children outgrow separation fears by ages 3-5 as cognitive abilities improve and confidence increases. Still, temperament plays a role in duration.
Q: How can I make drop-offs at childcare easier with separation anxiety?
A: Develop a quick, consistent goodbye routine. Start with brief separations then increase duration slowly. Keep calm and offer reassurance.
Q: Are there techniques to help an anxious child sleep alone?
A: Gradually move closer to the door over time. Use calming techniques like stories and stuffed animals. Avoid repeatedly returning to soothe them.