Separation anxiety in children

Separation anxiety in children
Even if they’re older, some children are afraid of being separated from their parents because they experience separation anxiety. What are some solutions?

Many parents are familiar with separation anxiety since most babies experience this phase beginning at 8 months of age. However, for some kids, the fear of being separated from their parents persists; it can also go away and then resurface. Separation anxiety that occurs from age 3 onwards affects about 4 percent of children.

These articles may also be of interest to you:

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a strong fear that a child has of being separated from their parents. Usually, this fear revolves around the parent they spend the most time with. However, it can also occur in relation to both parents or other loved ones, such as a grandparent or sibling.

A child can experience separation anxiety during big changes, such as starting daycare or school. In most cases, the problem resolves itself within a few days or weeks as the child adjusts to their new environment.

It’s normal for a young child to be afraid of being abandoned and to believe that their parents won’t come back. Eventually, they come to understand that their parents will return. This usually marks the end of separation anxiety.

However, if a child’s anxiety seems more intense and prolonged than would be expected of a child their age, and if it disrupts their development and adjustment, they may have separation anxiety disorder.

Possible causes of separation anxiety

There are several reasons why a child may develop separation anxiety. Each child’s situation is different. Separation anxiety can be related to any of the following:

  • A particular event or a period of stress, such as an illness in the family, parental separation, moving, or changing daycares or schools.
  • Genetic or environmental factors. A child whose loved ones have had or are currently dealing with anxiety disorders is more likely to experience separation anxiety, to varying degrees. In addition, kids with a parent who has an anxiety disorder may tend to replicate that parent’s reactions to situations that cause anxiety.
  • A temperament that makes a child naturally more likely to develop anxiety.
  • A difficult or traumatic event that temporarily separated the child from their parents, such as an extended hospitalization.

How can you help your child when they’re experiencing separation anxiety?

Although this phase is often difficult for the whole family, there are ways to help your child overcome their separation anxiety. Here are some examples:

  • “Practise” separation: leave your child with someone you trust for short periods of time in a safe and familiar environment (such as home), even if they cry when you leave. Gradually increase the amount of time you’re apart.
  • Prepare your child for separations: talk to them about where they’re going, bring them there ahead of time if possible, explain step-by-step how things will go, and make a connection with someone there. For example, if your child is anxious about starting school, you can bring them there and play for a while in the playground. If your child has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, consider asking the school if they can visit their new classroom and meet their teacher before school starts.
  • Maintain a consistent, reassuring routine (mealtimes, bedtime, etc.) throughout the time your child is experiencing separation anxiety.
  • Establish a brief, neutral goodbye ritual: give your little one a kiss, say goodbye, tell them who will be picking them up later, and then leave. Drawing out this moment when your child is upset is not recommended. Always follow the same steps during the goodbye ritual so that it’s predictable and reassuring.
  • Keep your word when you promise to be back at a certain time.
  • Give your child a transitional object (e.g., their favourite stuffed animal) before leaving.
  • Be patient: some situations (Monday mornings, coming back from vacation, etc.) may be more difficult for your child than others.
  • Stay calm: your demeanour will reassure your child that they’re safe. If your child senses that you’re at ease, it will soothe them because they trust you.

Separation anxiety disorder

If your child’s separation anxiety persists for more than 4 weeks, causes them significant distress, and disrupts your family’s daily life, you should consult a health professional (a doctor, child psychiatrist, psychologist, or neuropsychologist). They may diagnose your child with separation anxiety disorder.

This disorder consists of an excessive fear of being separated from one’s parents, leading to dramatic reactions whenever this occurs. Separation anxiety disorder interferes with a child’s functioning: for example, they might throw long and intense tantrums at daycare or school, be overwhelmed by obsessive thoughts, refuse to interact with other kids, avoid contact with the adult in charge, experience disrupted sleep or appetite, etc.

Things to keep in mind

  • A child with separation anxiety feels a great deal of fear when they have to be separated from their parents.
  • Separation anxiety usually lasts for a few days or weeks and disappears once the child has become accustomed to their new environment (e.g., daycare, school).
  • When separation anxiety does not go away and it interferes with the child’s functioning or day-to-day family life, this is known as separation anxiety disorder.


Naître et grandir

Scientific review: Stéphanie Deslauriers, psychoeducator
Research and writing: The Naître et grandir team
January 2021


Photo: GettyImages/globalmoments


Sources and references

Note: The links to other websites are not updated regularly, and some URLs may have changed since publication. If a link is no longer valid, please use search engines to find the relevant information.