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Separation Anxiety in Children

Crying, tantrums, begging you not to leave. Separation anxiety can almost be considered a childhood milestone since most parents and children will probably experience it to some degree. Whether it’s leaving your infant, toddler or child for the first time with a babysitter, a family member, dropping them off at daycare or even at a friend’s house, separation anxiety is very common in infancy and childhood especially when starting a new experience.

Causes of Separation Anxiety in Children

Dr. Kenneth Polin, a pediatrician at Lurie Children’s Primary Care – Town & Country Pediatrics, says, “There is no typical age for separation anxiety to begin. Separation anxiety can occur in children at any age.” And is dependent on two concepts:

  1. Recognition within a child’s comfort zone
  2. Recognition of who is taking care of them and what’s going on

Kids are great at picking up cues and other sensory input. Since routine is almost inherent to infants, toddlers and children, they are able to recognize when something is different and this can cause them anxiety. “The sophistication to which kids recognize a difference or change is based on their level of understanding things. This can start around 9 months old when they learn about object constancy through the game ‘peekaboo,’ and with older kids who have more sophisticated recognition,” says Dr. Polin.

How to Help Children with Separation Anxiety

In a situation where you believe your child may develop separation anxiety, such as dropping your child off at daycare for the first time, Dr. Polin advises to first make sure you are comfortable with the setting, as children can pick up on your anxiety.  “Show that as a parent you know the people there and are friendly with them. Letting them feel comfortable gives them the perspective that they are in a comfortable place with their parents and there is no need for concern. This may allow them to gradually warm up to the new setting,” advises Dr. Polin. Other suggestions Dr. Polin makes to help ease separation anxiety include:

  • Practice separation for brief periods. For example, with a new babysitter, have the sitter come over to your home while you stay out of sight or run a quick errand.
  • Reassurance and acknowledgment of your child’s feelings. If your child is old enough, engage a dialogue with them. Provide comfort and tell them your plans and when you will return. It will help them feel more in control.
  • Don’t make a fanfare about leaving. Stay calm and patient but don’t give in. In due time, kids will begin to understand that being apart is not long-term and they should adapt.

If your child still shows signs of separation anxiety, that is okay. Most kids will adapt in due time but it can take others longer. Separation anxiety can differ among children. Some kids might not experience it at all while others might have a harder time getting use to new surroundings or caretakers. If you are still concerned, Dr. Polin reminds that most experienced childcare providers can recognize what a normal and abnormal response is. “It’s a good sign if a child gets comfortable and settles down within 15- 30 minutes. But if a child cries continually for hours while you are away from him/her and even cries the next day when they start to recognize where they are going or who is taking care of them, it might suggest something more is going on. Trust your instinct. As a parent, you know your child best and if you think the problem is not resolving contact your pediatrician for further advice.”

Learn more about Lurie Children’s Primary Care - Town & Country Pediatrics

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