Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage experienced by a child when separated from the primary caregiver. It typically manifests itself as crying and distress when a child is away from a parent or from home.
As time goes by and a child learns to feel safe in a new environment and secure that a parent or caregiver will return after an absence, anxiety over separation should fade.
The typical sequence of child development and parent/child attachment is as follows:
- First few months: Babies don’t differentiate much among caregivers and usually can be calmed by any loving person, regardless of relationship. This is why new parents often get more emotional the first time they leave an infant with a babysitter or at day care than the baby does!
- 7-14 months: By about 7 months, babies realize that there’s only one Mom and/or Dad, but they don’t have a sense of time, so even if parents step into the next room for a minute, all the baby knows is that they’re gone, and they’re going to cry or cling or do whatever it takes to keep that from happening. This phase is often called “stranger anxiety,” because even the happiest child becomes shy or fearful around everyone but the primary caregiver, and generally peaks before 18 months.
- Toddler/preschool years: Children can be anxious and become emotional when a parent or primary caregiver leaves but can be distracted by activities with the caregiver or other children.
- By age 5: Most children are secure enough to be left with a babysitter, family member or dropped off at school without distress.
Young children exhibit many different behaviors when they are anxious, including:
- Crying or whining
- Clinginess (holding hand or leg, wanting to be held, hiding behind parent)
- They may become more silent or reclusive
- They may be unwillingness to interact with others, even if they are familiar (other parent, grandparent, friend)
Situations such as moving to a new home, a change in caregiver, or the birth of a new sibling can trigger or exacerbate separation anxiety.
Normally, separation anxiety is the temporarily distressing result of something all parents want to maintain: bonding with their children. Babies bond to primary caregivers, and then realize their own selfhood, but this happens before they develop a sense of time or learn to trust that an absent caregiver will return. This is why they become anxious when the parent or guardian is not around. As children develop a sense of safety and security in their homes and with their parents, they begin to realize that people can leave and return, and gain confidence that caregiver who promise to come back will in fact come back. With that realization, separation anxiety fades.
Keep an eye out for an upcoming post that will tackle Separation-Anxiety Disorder and how to overcome it...