Separation anxiety is common amongst toddlers and it’s identified as distressed behaviour that very young children exhibit when removed from the security of their parent’s presence. This anxiety can start at around 8 months and reach its peak in babies aged 14-18 months. It usually goes away gradually throughout early childhood.
Stranger anxiety is similar to separation anxiety. It’s when children get upset around people they don’t know. It can happen from 7-10 months and usually starts to go away after children’s first birthdays.
These anxieties are a normal part of development and are nothing to be concerned about. Children are starting to move around more at this stage, so these anxieties make sense from a survival point of view. That is, if children could crawl or walk away from their carers but weren’t afraid of separation or strangers, they’d get lost more easily.
Helping children with separation anxiety
If your child is suffering from separation anxiety, there are lots of things you can do to help her.
When you’re leaving your child in places that they haven’t visited before:
If you’re leaving your child in a new setting – indoor play center, preschool, friend’s house, baby sitter – spend time at the new place with your child before the separation. Your child will be less distressed if they’re left in a safe, familiar place with familiar people they trust.
Let your child take something they love from home, like a teddy bear, pillow or blanket. These objects will help your child feel safer, and you can gradually phase them out as they feel more settled in the new place.
Tell your child’s child care centre, preschool or school about they’re separation anxiety, and let them know about anything you’re doing to help your child. This way, other people in your child’s environment can give them consistent support.
Gently encourage your child to separate from you by giving her practice. It’s important to give her positive experiences of separations and reunions. Avoiding separations from your child can make the problem worse.
When you’re leaving your child at home
Tell your child when you’re leaving and when you’ll be back. This is helpful even with babies. Sneaking out without saying goodbye can make things worse. Your child might feel confused or upset when he realises you’re not around and might be harder to settle the next time you leave him.
Settle your child in an enjoyable activity before you leave.
Keep a relaxed and happy look on your face when you’re leaving. If you seem worried or sad, your child might think the place isn’t safe and can get upset too.
No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid criticising or being negative about your child’s difficulty with separation. For example, avoid saying things like ‘She’s such a mummy’s girl’ or ‘Don’t be such a baby’.
Read books or make up stories with your child about separation fears – for example, ‘Once upon a time, there was a little bunny who didn’t want to leave his mummy. He was afraid of what he might find outside his burrow …’ This might help your child feel he’s not alone in being afraid of separating from his parents.
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MY BURROW is strictly for toddlers aged 2-4.
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