Separation Anxiety in Children

Your baby’s attentiveness to you above all others, was one of the best feelings in the world. Recently, the attention has turned into hysterics with tears and tantrums every time you leave. Your child is experiencing separation anxiety. This is a normal developmental phase, and it should not last forever!

When does it happen?

Although more common in toddlers, a small percentage of infants will display separation anxiety. At this age, they do not understand object permanence, which means an object (or person), still exists even if they cannot see or hear it.

They believe if they can’t see you, you’ve gone away.

Separation anxiety can happen as early as four to five months, but happens around nine months for most infants. As children enter toddlerhood at 15 or 18 months of age, their independence increases. They become even more aware of separations and start demonstrating challenges. By the preschool age (three years), your child begins to understand their body and the effect of their anxiety at separation time. Their behaviour when you leave will be loud, tearful, and challenging to stop.

What you can do

It can be a very unsettling time for both of you. Understand what is happening and have a few coping strategies ready to help you both get through it.

  • Be aware of the situation. Children are more likely to misbehave or have separation anxiety when hungry, tired, sick, or stressed. Any change in environment, a new situation, large gathering, or a change in routine will likely cause some stress for your child. Lots of reassurance is needed.
  • Practice being apart. Give your child a chance to prepare, experience, and thrive in your absence. Playdates, a quick visit to Nan’s or a friend’s house allows an opportunity to say goodbye when you leave. Sneaking out of the house while they are distracted is not recommended. This may save you the pain of watching your child cry, but if you are out of sight, it can leave your child thinking you might disappear at any given moment without notice.
  • Establish a brief leaving routine. Keep the goodbye short and sweet. Don’t linger; as the transition time increases, so does anxiety. Use kisses, high fives, a special activity, or a hug with a security blanket to signal your departure. If your child knows what to expect, it diminishes the heartache and allows your child to build trust in their own independence and in you at the same time. Say your goodbye quickly despite their antics or cries for you to stay.
  • Stick to your routine. Your child will quickly learn what is happening next. You will build trust and independence as your child becomes confident in their ability to be without you when you stick to your promise of return.
  • Keep your behaviour in check when dropping off your child. It is essential to be consistent, calm, and relaxed– even if they are hysterical. You might share your child’s apprehension about being separated. But if you let it show, your child will almost certainly pick up on it. They need your reassurance that everything is ok.

It is only temporary

This phase will pass. Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development and will disappear over time. Every child is unique, and there is no set time frame for when separation anxiety appears or disappears. A child’s anxiety may even take a few months to dissipate, so be prepared for regression, especially when routines change.

Services related to this information:

  • Bridge the gApp
    Newfoundland and Labrador’s ‘go-to’ website for mental health information. Bridge the gApp offers self-help resources, links to local services, and invites people to share their personal stories. Bridge the gApp is free of cost and available to every resident in the province. The site is divided into adult and youth sections, however many services are appropriate for both.
  • Strongest Families Children and Youth Programs
    Free skill-based educational programs for children, youth, adults, and families seeking help to improve mental health and well-being.
  • Mental health and addictions services.
  • Mental Health Crisis Line – 709-737-4668 / 1-888-737-4668
    A free, confidential service for individuals, family and friends. The crisis line is province-wide, 24 hours a day.
  • Contact your public health nurse
  • Contact your physician/nurse practitioner
  • 811 HealthLine (Newfoundland & Labrador) – Call 811 or 1-888-709-2929 / TTY 1-888-709-3555
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Last updated: 2022-06-09