Separation anxiety – your child crying when you drop him off at daycare, school or anywhere – is a normal phase that start anywhere from seven months to two years. But how to deal with your child crying whenever you leave him or her? At nine months, Christine Botthof’s son, Chase, got a serious case of separation anxiety. “If I walked from the kitchen to the laundry room he would burst into screams and cries,” says Botthof. “As soon as I would reappear, he’d stop.” She says he grew out of it by the time he was 18 months.
Meanwhile, her daughter Torie got a mild case at nine months, but the worst came at 19 months. “As soon as she sees me, the only thing on her mind is being held. If I put her down, she cries,” says Botthof. “Torie doesn’t do strangers yet. Because of this, any Mommy’s Day Out program is off-limits right now.” She says, at times, she feels desperate.
Dr. Elizabeth Griffith, a psychologist with the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Civitan-Sparks Clinic, says this behavior is normal. In fact, most children will experience some level of separation anxiety between seven months and two years of age. “You don’t need to prevent it,” says Dr. Griffith. “It’s a normal developmental process.”
Griffith says between four and seven months children begin to understand object permanence, meaning objects still exist even though they don’t see them. In other words, they realize even though they can’t see mom, they know she’s still there — which leads to missing her.
Characteristics of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is defined by distress when the parent, the mother in particular, walks away from the child. Some children begin crying, whining or screaming. Others may cling or beg their parent to stay. They also have a tendency to cry around people and refuse to be with anyone but their primary caregiver.
Children’s Health Systems physician, Dr. Gigi Youngblood, says this is all a sign of healthy bonding and most children will grow out of it. “It can be really hard on the parents,” says Dr. Youngblood. “Every parent is going to feel some degree of guilty or frustration.”
How to Help Your Child Cope
– Do talk to other parents about the issue, so you know you’re not alone. “For parents to have that understanding that it is normal and that their child is going to be okay, that helps you remain calm,” says Griffith.
– Don’t punish or bribe your child. Separation anxiety is a healthy part of children’s development. By threatening or bribing them, you’re making it something it’s not.
– Do have a calm hand-off. “Have your sitter arrive 10-15 minutes before you have to leave,” says Griffith. “That gives you time to get your child engaged in something else, a game, or some fun activity with the other caregiver.”
– Don’t apologize or sneak out. This could make your child more anxious. Youngblood says you should give no indication that anything is wrong or out of the ordinary.
– Do establish a goodbye ritual. “Three kisses and a hug or kissing hands,” says Griffith. “You need to wave, smile and say goodbye and then go.”
– Don’t “check in” after you’ve left. Experts say, if you come back because your child is crying, you’re teaching them to cry in order to get you to come back. “Typically, after the parent leaves, the child is only upset for five minutes,” says Youngblood.
– Do have a “security” object. For some children it’s a lovie, for others it’s a picture of mom. It can help comfort your child when you’re gone.
Games You Can Play
Experts say there are several games you can play to help your child with their separation anxiety. Griffith says try Peek-A-Boo. By standing behind a door and popping out to show your child your there, they understand that when you go away, you’ll always come back. You can also try walking into another room while singing so your child continues to hear your voice even though they can’t see you.
Youngblood says this is also around the time when children begin to explore their surroundings. “Let your child leave, but don’t run right behind them,” she says. ‘Wait a few seconds and then reappear.”
If they’re really having difficulty, make sure they have exposure to different people when you’re around. Experts say it’s helpful to try different play groups, going to family members’ houses, or visiting the zoo and talking to the zookeeper. You may even try brief separations with their grandparents or other relatives.
When to Worry
While most cases of separation anxiety are normal, experts say, if children continue to show signs much past two years of age, you should consult your pediatrician. Prolonged distress could also be a red flag. This could be a sign of separation anxiety disorder.
“You can actually see periods of it when they start school at five to seven years-old. Also when they start middle school,” says Youngblood. “That can be normal, but also a sign of dysfunction.” She says stress at home, like a move, different childcare setting or illness can create a reoccurrence of separation anxiety. All of this is normal, as long as it doesn’t continue for more than a week.
In most cases, separation anxiety is nothing more than a phase. “When Chase finally did move on, I left like I was the one who was hooked and then missed him so much,” says Botthof. “But really, it is what it is…a child moving on to the next stage of his life.”
By: Christie del Amo Johnson
Christie del Amo Johnson is a former television news reporter turned full-time mom and part-time freelance writer.