What to Do About A Child with Separation Anxiety

separation anxiety in children

It probably breaks your heart every time your child cries or throws a tantrum when you leave. You may even feel guilty, but separation anxiety is actually quite normal after a child turns one. It just shows that your child has a healthy attachment to you. Eventually, your child will have to learn to be okay without you from time to time. Given the chance, they will realize that you always come back after you leave. But until they learn this, you may need some coping mechanisms for when your child with separation anxiety becomes upset or refuses to go to a caregiver.

Have a Child with Separation Anxiety? Do’s and Don’ts

When your child cries when you leave, your natural reaction is to want to hold them and console them. But doing so will typically have the opposite effect of what you’re hoping for. This tells the child, “If I cry, mommy will stay and hold me.” Your child needs to see that you are confident in parting from them, so they can also feel confident that everything will be okay.

What Not to Do:

#1: Run back into the room every time your child cries. Your child is observant and will use whatever tactic works to keep you from leaving.

#2: Cancel your plans. This will also reinforce their anxious behavior.

#3: Leave at a time when your child is more prone to tantrums, like when they are tired or hungry.

#4: Leave your child with an unfamiliar person between 8 months and one year, when anxiety first begins.

#5: Continue leaving your child with a particular caregiver if your child shows troublesome signs like an inability to sleep or loss of appetite. It may not be the caregiver, but it’s important for you to investigate.

What to Do:

#1. Try some test runs before long departures. Instead of leaving your child with someone new for a long stretch of time, you can start by leaving for short periods of time so they can see that you always come back. Introduce new people and places slowly:  you can even invite the babysitter over for a visit before your planned outing, so your child gets familiar with them.

#2. Be calm, confident, and consistent. By showing your child that you are confident that they’ll be ok, you’ll help them become more confident. Practice the same routine and leave with a calm, loving statement like, “I’ll be back right after nap time.”  If they start crying or throwing a tantrum, don’t give in or hesitate. Stick to the same departure routine.

#3. Partner with the caregiver. If you know your child tends to get anxious when you leave, plan an exit strategy with your caregiver. Sometimes they’ll need to be prepared to hold your child or redirect their attention when you leave.

#4. Keep your promise. It’s important to make sure that you return when you have promised to. This is critical — this is how your child will develop the confidence that he or she can make it through the time apart.

Separation anxiety may be worse for some kids than others. If a child with separation anxiety continues to show anxious behavior through elementary years and beyond, you may want to seek the help of a counselor or psychologist.

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