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Surviving Separation Anxiety

Six Tips from the American Academy of Pediatrics



At 18 months, Presley didn't want to separate from her dad to have her picture taken. This is an age when separation anxiety can peak in toddlers.

Kristen Mackey

Until she was 18 months old, my daughter was so nonchalant whenever I’d leave the room that she seemed like a tiny teenager. As I’d head off to work, she would glance my way, then resume chewing on her barnyard animals or playing with her daycare teacher. She seemed to be thinking, “Eh, catch you later, Mom—whatever.” I figured: Phew! We dodged all the separation anxiety drama that had stressed out so many of my work friends.

But then one morning, reality struck big-time. As I opened the door to leave, my sweet little toddler clung to my leg, bawling so hard she could barely breathe. I was heartbroken, and totally stunned. I had no clue why it was happening or what approach would be easiest on her. Honestly, I may have even called in to work that first day just out of sheer parental panic.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), separation anxiety can happen almost overnight, which makes it shocking to parents like me. What’s more, it’s often not just a one-time, babyhood phase for many kids. The tears and fears related to being apart from a parent can resurface in the toddler and preschool years, posing new challenges for parents and warranting different solutions. As disheartening as that may sound, the AAP says it can be very helpful to remember that separation anxiety is completely normal, even healthy.

So how can we survive separation anxiety? The AAP has a few tips to help caregivers understand and deal with the fear of separation in their children.

Create quick good-bye rituals.

Give triple kisses at the cubby, or provide a special blanket or toy as you leave, but keep the good-bye short and sweet. If you linger, the transition time does too and so will the anxiety.

Be consistent.

Try to do the same drop-off with the same ritual at the same time each day you separate to avoid unexpected factors whenever you can. A routine can diminish the heartache and will allow your child to simultaneously build trust in her independence and in you.

Attention.

When separating, give your child full attention, be loving, and provide affection. Then say good-bye quickly despite her antics or cries for you to stay.

Keep your promise.

You’ll build trust and independence as your child becomes confident in her ability to be without you when you stick to your promise of return when you say you will.

Be specific, child style.

When you discuss your return, provide specifics that your child understands. If you know you’ll be back by 3 p.m., tell your child on his terms; for example, say, “I’ll be back after nap time and before afternoon snack.” Define time in ways that he can understand. Talk about your return from a business trip in terms of “sleeps.” Instead of saying, “I’ll be home in three days,” say, “I’ll be home after three sleeps.”

Practice being apart.

Ship the children off to grandma’s home, schedule playdates, allow friends and family to provide childcare for you (even for an hour) on the weekend. Before starting childcare or preschool, practice going to school and your good-bye ritual before you even have to part ways. Give your child a chance to prepare, experience and thrive in your absence!

It’s rare that separation anxiety persists on a daily basis after the preschool years. If you’re concerned that your child isn’t adapting to being without you, chat with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician has certainly helped support families in the same situation and can help calm your unease and determine a plan to support both of you!


According to HealthyChildren.org, “Once your infant realizes you’re really gone (when you are), it may leave him unsettled. Although some babies display object permanence and separation anxiety as early as 4 to 5 months of age, most develop more robust separation anxiety at around 9 months.” Toddlers may demonstrate separation anxiety at 15 to 18 months of age.


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