Separation anxiety is when a child gets upset when separated from a parent or loved carer. For example, a young child may become distressed when left with a baby sitter, or when put to bed alone.
Separation anxiety is normal during early childhood. It reflects the child's attempts to hold on to what is safe in a very scary world, and it will settle down as the child grows older and more confident.
Children generally start worrying about being away from carers when they are old enough to know that there are special people in their life who look after them, and when they can clearly recognise the difference between family members and strangers.
Knowing that the special person(s) is near helps children to feel safe. When the child's special person is not there, the child becomes upset – often this brings the parent or carer back, and the child feels safe again.
If a pattern is established where the special person always comes back after small separations, the child eventually learns that the world is a safe place, and they are able to be happy when the special people aren't there.
The separations need to be very short at first, because the child does not understand that their special person will be coming back. It takes a long time – years – for children to feel safe when the special person is not there.
Usually it takes until children are three or four years old for them to feel safe even for a short time when they are away from people they know and trust.
This means that toddlers may often become distressed on separation from parents and carers when being dropped off at child care centres. However, this distress is often short-lived, and many children do thrive in the safe environment of a child care centre.
Children may be upset at the time that a parent leaves them, be relaxed and happy with the person caring for them, then upset again when the parent returns and they 'remember' that they were left. This is not 'manipulative' – it is normal child development, and shows that the child still does not feel really comfortable when the parent is not there, but is learning how to manage.
By the time children commence kindergarten (at around four years of age) or school (five or six years), they will be better able to manage an extended period of time without having a parent or special carer around, although some children will have difficulty with this even at four or five years.
All children have to learn to deal with separations. It is part of learning about life. If the first separations are managed well, it helps children with the separations they will have to deal with all through their lives.
Always make sure that your children will be safe and well looked after so that you can feel confident in assuring they that they will be fine.
Help them get to know any new situation or carer while you are there. It can take some time for them to feel comfortable
If your baby or young child is going to child care, try to find a place where there will be only one or two people who will be the special carers and who will usually be there when your child is there.
If you can, stay with your children until they get to know the carer. If you show that you trust and like the carer, it will help children to feel safe.
Always say goodbye, this builds trust. Sneaking out or trying to get away may make a child feel that you can't be trusted.
Let the child mind something of yours (such as a bag or keys) when you are not there.
Help them to know when you will be coming back. Tell them in ways they understand, eg. "After lunch".
Be reliable and always come back when you say you will. If for some reason you can’t get back on time, let the carer know, so that she/he will be able to tell your child what has happened.
Have lots of little practice separations, eg, play Peek-a-Boo and Hide and Seek (and make sure to be easy to find!). This helps the child learn that you always come back.
There are sometimes other issues underlying separation anxiety which necessitate different strategies to be applied. We can help turn this around! If your child is experiencing separation anxiety at a level you feel is not acceptable please contact Janet on 9939 3732
Janet Cater is co -author of the book "Why Wont My Child Listen?" The key to raising happy, confident children with healthy self-esteem is understanding how their minds work — from birth onwards. This book explains the workings of the brain and, using the principles of Brain Gym, shows you how you can encourage your children to grow into happy, well-adjusted teenagers, along with advice and practical tools on how to improve communication, nurture their spirit and build self-esteem. Janet can be contacted on: firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website www.janetbcater.com
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