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Separation Anxiety- When Should a Parent Worry About Their Child's Worry

Child looks out window

Separation Anxiety is a completely normal and expected occurrence in young children. However, normal and expected does not mean “easy to manage”. Many of us parents worry about our child’s worrying. When is our child’s anxiety upon separating from us too big? When does it fall outside the lines of what is “developmentally appropriate”? When should you seek outside help for your child and your family?

Separation Anxiety typically begins between the ages of 6 and 12 months and extinguishes around 3 years. Because children of these ages typically communicate in behavior as opposed to words, Separation Anxiety manifests in behaviors like crying, clinging to the parent, passive defiance (e.g., ignoring the parent when parent is asking child to walk to the car), outright defiance (e.g., yelling “no” when asked to put on shoes), and full-blown meltdowns. Children often feel their emotions more in their bodies so children may complain of headaches or stomach-aches. 

Why does Separation Anxiety occur? A child’s job is to experience novelty and stimuli and have feelings about it. Children at this age are learning many abstract concepts including object permanence (things and people exist even if I cannot see them), safety versus threat, closeness and otherness with the parent, and autonomy. Our child’s Separation Anxiety is simply a sign that they are learning these concepts.

Now, if a child’s job is to experience and feel, what is the parent’s job? Our job as parents is to provide a secure base to the child as they have experiences and help them regulate their feelings. That looks like remaining calm and loving while setting appropriate limits as our children express themselves. Some real talk, what that could look like is the parent taking some deep breaths and keeping their voice calm as they pry their child off of them at school drop-off, telling them “I know you want to stay with daddy. You are safe with your teacher. I will see you after school.” Keep the drop-off short and simple. Elongating it will only increase their anxiety.

When is Separation Anxiety too much? When should we seek help from outside the family? As a family therapist, what I look at is intensity, frequency, and duration of symptoms as well as the child’s history of trauma and stressors. More importantly, I look at the impact that the child’s Separation Anxiety is having on them and on the family as a whole. Is the child’s anxiety so extreme they are unable to learn at school, eat a snack, or play with friends? Do they spend all day in an anxious state? Are the parents breaking down in tears after drop-offs on a regular basis, spending their day ruminating about how their child is doing?

Tips and Tricks to use at home

  • The Anchoring Technique: Talk to your child about something you are going to do together after school. “I am going to miss you while I am at work and I’m so looking forward to taking you to the park when I pick you up.”

  • Transitional Objects: Allow the child to take a preferred item from home with them (if the venue allows it). Mommy’s bracelet, a picture of the child and their dog, their favorite stuffy.

  • Reading: Explore their anxiety when they are NOT in an anxious state. The Invisible String by Patrice Karst is a particular favorite book of mine.

  • Quality, one-on-one, uninterrupted time before school: Time is hard to come by in the morning but a little goes a long way. 

  • Lastly, but most importantly, self-regulating is a parent’s best tool for helping the child with their anxiety. 

More questions about this topic or ideas about what you’d like to read about next? Reach out to me.

Written with compassion for my fellow parents. Parenting is hard!

Sarah Lesko, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist


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