It’s hard to believe, but children as young as a few months old can experience anxiety. In fact, beginning around six months, a certain amount of separation anxiety is to be expected, and can be difficult for both your child and for you. Here are three quick tips to remember whenever you are worried about your child’s separation anxiety:
1) Anxiety is completely normal
Separation anxiety is generally triggered when a child becomes mobile (crawling and walking). The ability to move ‘independently’ is exciting, but also causes worry about being too far away from a caregiver. You will notice your baby crawl or walk a little, then ‘check in’ to make sure you are still there. This new push and pull feeling – wanting to explore, but still needing to feel secure – sets off the separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is most clear when you (or another primary caregiver) leave for any amount of time. For some children, the anxiety is minor. They will cry briefly, but it will dissipate after a couple of minutes of distraction. For others, separation can be more significant. They will cry for several minutes or more after you leave, refusing to be consoled. In fact, a baby or toddler may even cry when you return, simply from relief that you are back! Some children continue to experience separation anxiety into kindergarten, but almost every preschool and kindergarten teacher reports that once the moment of separation is over, the child is fine and able to enjoy their time in school. Thus, as long as your child’s separation struggles don’t interfere with her ability to enjoy new life experiences, it is not a serious concern.
2) Learning to deal with separation anxiety is a life skill
It can be upsetting to see your child cry when you leave, and may even cause pangs of guilt. However, the ability to separate is an important life skill for a child to learn…not one that you should avoid. As long as you remain calm and give clear consistent messages, your child will adjust. It will take time, but it will happen. The best way to handle separation anxiety is to separate quickly and with a big smile. Give your child a kiss and a reassuring word and then walk out. Do not drag out the separation (even if you feel ambivalent), and don’t come back! That will only prolong this period of adjustment and the hope that sometimes you come back can make adjusting worse. In addition, whenever possible, it is very reassuring to your child when you institute a routine that becomes familiar. For example, when you leave for work each morning, do so maybe at the same time and/or leaving your child in the same childcare situation, and always with the same ‘goodbye’ routine.
3) Don’t Worry!
Almost every child experiences some separation anxiety, and with your help, most overcome it within a year or so. However, for some children anxiety can be extreme, or manifest beyond separation. If you feel that (a) your child is struggling with anxiety more than other children, (b) the anxiety affects her in areas of life other than separation, and/or (c) the anxiety persists beyond kindergarten, it is a good idea to speak to a professional. And don’t let your child’s anxiety make you anxious! Learning how to manage your child’s anxiety with consistent messages and a calm approach can be extremely beneficial for reducing or eliminating it, and is most effective when addressed early on.
So when you are concerned about their anxiety, just remember – it is NORMAL, they are developing an important LIFE SKILL as they learn to manage their anxiety and DON’T WORRY!