Separation Anxiety and Kids

It's common but can cause some serious stress for children and parents. Here, a pediatric nurse practitioner with Children's Hospital of Michigan offers tips on coping.

Sad young boy with closed eyes hugging his lovely mother

When Daniel’s parents are preparing to leave him with a babysitter on an episode of PBS show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the young tiger feels anxious about their departure. To help comfort him, Mom and Dad Tiger sing a little song called “Grownups Come Back.”

The tune is one way his parents let Daniel know they will always return – whether it’s from an evening out or a day at work – and it helps the young boy cope with the separation anxiety he is feeling in that moment.

It’s not uncommon for children, especially infants and those who are preschool age like Daniel, to feel separation anxiety.

“It’s a normal part of childhood. Every kid at some point will probably experience it,” says Dominique Rondot, MSN, RN, CPNP-PC, a pediatric nurse practitioner with the Children’s Hospital of Michigan‘s hospitalist division.

Every parent has likely experienced a moment when a child has cried or been extra clingy when they’ve tried to leave home – and that is stressful for both the child and mom or dad.

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So, why does this happen, and how can you help your little one cope? Here, Rondot offers advice for families.

Why this happens

Change can be anxiety inducing for adults, and children are no different. When something new happens or something changes, children are likely to feel separation anxiety.

It starts in infancy with stranger anxiety, Rondot says. At 8 to 9 months old, babies are able to recognize who their parents are, and when someone different comes around, they might start to cry.

“I think as an infant, they start to realize that there’s someone different,” she says. “They become aware of things around them, and they are able to identify their parents and then know when they are not there.”

In some cases, though, separation anxiety peaks at 15 to 18 months old. “In that second year of life is when they can have more issues with it,” she adds. And it can ramp up again when kids start preschool or a new school year.

“Your preschool kids or school-age kids can worry something bad might happen to their parents when they are not with them,” Rondot says.

Both infants and older children might cry and hold onto mom or dad when they are trying to leave the child at home, heading to work or taking the child to school.

“It’s a huge stress. The kids feel stressed and the parents feel even more stressed,” she says. And while it’s normal for parents to feel bad for leaving their children, “There is no evidence that suggests the child is harmed by the parent working outside of the home,” she says.

How to cope

Preparing kids for transitions or any new experience is key to helping them cope, Rondot notes. If you have a 3- or 4-year-old child who is going to start preschool, for example, talk to him or her about the first day of school and what to expect. Let your child know you’ll be dropping them off at school – where they’ll learn and play with classmates all day – and then you’ll be back to pick them up afterwards.

“Transitions are made when kids are feeling good,” she says, not when a child is tired or hungry. Make sure they’ve had breakfast or a snack if you’re dropping them off at school, she suggests.

When it comes to drop-off time, keep it consistent and quick.

“The quicker, the better the goodbye is,” she says. “The longer you’re lingering there, the longer the anxiety lingers.”

Come up with a ritual so kids know what to expect. This daily ritual could include a hug and kiss from mom or dad, plus a toy that always goes with your child to preschool, for example.

While it might feel like things won’t improve, they will, Rondot adds.

“This too shall pass. It does get better with time as they age. It’s a very normal behavior,” she says. “Usually, having these behaviors of separation anxiety rarely last longer after preschool years.”

If your child’s separation anxiety is occurring daily and lingering after 4 or 5 years old, it’s time to talk to a pediatrician, she notes.

And remember, “As parents, don’t feel guilty. You are not alone. A lot of parents are dealing with this.”

For more information on Children’s Hospital of Michigan, visit childrensdmc.org.

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