Separation anxiety varies widely between children. Some babies become hysterical when mom is out of sight for a short time, and other children seem to demonstrate ongoing anxiety at separations during infancy, toddlerhood and preschool.

Separation anxiety is difficult for parents, as well as the crying child. While it’s an entirely normal behavior and a beautiful sign of a meaningful attachment, separation anxiety can be unsettling for all.

Separation anxiety develops after a child gains an understanding of object permanence when they realize the parent is really gone. This awareness of loss may happen as early as 4 to 5 months, but usually develops around 9 months. It helps to keep transitions short and routine. Many toddlers skip separation anxiety in infancy and start developing these behaviors at 15 to 18 months. Separations are more difficult when children are hungry, tired or sick.

As children develop independence, they become more aware of separations and are loud, tearful and difficult to stop. By the time children are 3 years of age they understand the effect their anxiety and begging have on parents. It doesn’t mean they aren’t stressed, but they’re trying to change the plan. It’s important that the parent is consistent, doesn’t return to the room or change the plans based on separation anxiety.

Tips for surviving separation anxiety given in healthychildren.org are as follows:

1. Create quick goodbye rituals. Hug, kiss, and a short and sweet goodbye.

2. Be consistent. Try to do the same drop-off with the same ritual at the same time each day. A routine allows the child to build trust in her independence and with the parent.

3. When separating, give your child full attention; be loving and say goodbye quickly.

4. Keep your promise. A parent builds trust and independence in their child when the parent sticks to their promise to return. The child learns they can survive without the parent.

5. Be specific about the time you will return that the child understands. For instance, you will return after nap-time — not at 3 p.m.

6. Practice being apart. Take your child to grandmother’s home, schedule playdates, and allow friends and family to provide child care (even for an hour). Before starting child care of preschool, practice going to school and your goodbye ritual before you even have to part ways.

7. It’s important that children have a chance to experience independence and thrive in the absence of their parent.

It’s rare that separation anxiety persists on a daily basis after the preschool years. If the child isn’t able to adapt to being without their parent, talk to your health care provider for help making a plan to support both the child and the parent.

Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.

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