What is separation anxiety in children?
Separation anxiety is children’s fear of being away from their parents or carers.
Children with separation anxiety might cry or cling to their parents or carers when being separated from them.
Separation anxiety is a common part of children’s development. It can start at around 6-7 months and reach its peak in children aged 14-18 months. It usually goes away gradually throughout early childhood.
Fear of strangers is similar to separation anxiety. It’s when children get upset around people they don’t know.
These anxieties 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 babies and children with separation anxiety
If your child is suffering from separation anxiety, it’s best not to avoid separation. Instead, there are many things you can do to gently encourage and help your child.
In new places
- If you’re leaving your child somewhere new, like a relative’s house, child care centre or preschool, 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 your child feels more settled in the new place.
- Tell your child’s relative, child care centre, preschool or school about their separation anxiety. Also let them know about what you’re doing to help your child. This way, other people can give your child consistent support.
When you’re leaving your baby or child
- Start with short separations from your child. You can gradually increase the time apart as your child becomes comfortable with separation.
- Tell your child when you’re leaving and when you’ll be back. This is helpful even with babies. Leaving without saying goodbye can make things worse. Your child might feel confused or upset when they realise you’re not around. They might be fearful and harder to settle the next time you leave them.
- Settle your child in an enjoyable activity before you leave.
- Say goodbye to your child briefly – don’t drag it out.
- 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.
- Help your child get used to being apart from you by leaving them in a room with someone else. For example, ‘I’m just going to the kitchen for a little bit. Nanna will look after you’. Start with very short separations and build up over time.
- 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 they’re not alone in being afraid of separating from their parents.
- Make a conscious effort to foster your child’s self-esteem by giving them plenty of positive attention when they’re brave about being away from you.
Read about the stepladder approach, a gentle behaviour technique that can be used to help children who suffer from separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety disorder in older children
As children reach preschool and school age, they’re less likely to have separation anxiety. Of course, there’ll always be times when they only want to be with you.
If your preschool-age or school-age child seems particularly and regularly upset about being separated from you, it’s possible they have separation anxiety disorder. About 4% of preschoolers and school-age children develop this condition.
Separation anxiety disorder is when your child’s anxiety:
- interferes with your child’s life and your family life
- is more severe than the anxiety of other children the same age
- has gone on for at least 4 weeks.
Compared with other children the same age, children who have separation anxiety disorder might often:
- worry about you or them getting hurt or having an accident
- refuse to go to child care, preschool or school
- refuse to sleep at other people’s places without you
- complain about feeling sick when separated.
At around 10 months, most babies get upset if a stranger comes up to them in an unfamiliar room. Only 50% get upset if they have time to get used to the room. This means that in new situations, babies cope better when they come across new things gradually.
Professional help for separation anxiety and separation anxiety disorder
You know your child best. If you’re worried about their separation anxiety, consider seeking professional help. You could start with:
- your child’s teacher at preschool or school
- a school counsellor
- your child’s GP or paediatrician
- your local children’s health or community health centre
- a specialist anxiety clinic (present in most states)
- your local mental health service.
Kids Helpline offers confidential counselling to children aged 5 years and older. Your child can call 1800 551 800, or use the Kids Helpline email counselling service or the Kids Helpline web counselling service. You could help your child make contact.
Financial support for children with separation anxiety
Your child might be able to get Medicare rebates for up to 10 mental health service sessions from psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists each calendar year.
To get these rebates, your child will need a mental health treatment plan from a GP (this covers what services your child needs and the goals of the treatment) or a referral from a psychiatrist or paediatrician.