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The Goodbye Game: How to Ease the Pain of Separation Anxiety

Written by Melissa Robertson
separation anxiety

Goodbye tears are a normal milestone, but what happens when your baby doesn’t grow out of it?

While separation anxiety generally occurs in babies between eight and 14 months, typically manifesting in clingy behaviour mixed with a fear of strangers and new places,for some children it can linger and be in an indication of possible mental health issues in adulthood. According to a study by the Journal of Child and Family Studies, separation anxiety is the most prevalent anxiety disorder among children under 12 and when it lingers beyond the preschool years, it can lead to poor attendance in school and depression in young adults.

The separation anxiety Janet S.’s son experienced as a baby returned with the start of kindergarten. “Junior kindergarten was a solid two weeks of him crying and the teacher peeling him off of me,” she says. Even now, she tells us, “I can really only leave him with my husband or at school.”

Sarah W.’s son seemed to have bypassed separation anxiety in his younger years. He walked right into his kindergarten class without looking back his first day. Now that he is seven he seems unable to be away from his mother.

“This past year he has become so afraid of being apart from me I cannot even go to a lower level of the house without him freaking out.” she explains, noting that he is on the autism spectrum.

Recent studies suggest separation anxiety is more closely linked with a child’s environment, rather than their heredity. Of course kids aren’t the only ones who experience separation anxiety. Maternal separation anxiety manifests when a mother sees separation from their child as a threat and can lead to more ‘protective behaviours.’ Studies have suggested maternal separation anxiety can increase the likelihood the child will also experience anxiety, although the exact reason is not known.

Maternal separation anxiety is a condition that Ashley W. knows well. Her anxiety began during pregnancy when she was concerned about any possible health complications. Once her children were born, her anxiety grew. “I didn’t trust anyone,” she says.

She explains she feels that her children are not safe unless they are with her. “I can’t stand the thought of sending them to school,” she says. “I have anxiety the whole time I’m out in a busy place with them, scared they will get lost or someone will kidnap them.”


Common Signs of Separation Anxiety by Age


Infants (can occur as early as four to five months, but generally around 9 months)

Separation anxiety is linked to your baby’s understanding of object permanence. Once they realize this, they may feel upset when their parent or caregiver leaves the room.
This can be amplified if the baby is tired, hungry or sick.

Toddler (around 15 to 18 months of age)

Some children do not express separation anxiety as infants but show signs in toddlerhood. As children exert more independence as toddlers, they may become more aware of separations. Their reactions are often loud and tearful.

Preschooler (3 years and older)

By the time your child has reached age three, they understand the effect their tears and pleas have on their caregivers. Although they may still feel upset at the separation, they are trying to stop the separation from happening. It is important to be consistent with drop offs, especially during this time.


Potential signs of separation anxiety disorder


Here are some possible indications that you or your child may be experiencing higher than average anxiety due to separation:

  • Worry that something bad will happen to the caregiver or to the child if they are separated
  • Refusal to go to school in order to stay with the caregiver
  • Refusal to go to sleep without the caregiver being nearby or to sleep away from home
  • Fear of being alone
  • Nightmares about being separated
  • Bed wetting
  • Complaints of physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches, on school days
  • Repeated temper tantrums or pleading


Tips to make separation easier


It’s never easy when you or your child are worried about being apart, but these ideas may help:

  • It’s a good idea to make time for your child to get to know their caregiver before a long separation. Have visits with a new babysitter before they start care.
  • Always say goodbye. Although it is tempting to ‘slip out’ this can cause your baby to feel you can disappear into thin air.
  • Keep it light. Try not to show any tears. Instead, try to save those for your car ride and instead show that you like and trust the person you are leaving your child with.
  • As hard as it is to leave your crying child, try to keep your goodbyes brief and once you leave do not return. This will help the transition for you, your child and the caregiver.
  • It’s best if you can keep your separation routine consistent everywhere: places of worship, daycare, the gym etc.

Have you and your family had to deal with separation anxiety? Any tips you can pass on that helped you?

*Opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Parent Life Network or their partners.