Parenting Vivian | 03 Feb 2010 03:40 am

Separation Anxiety in Early Childhood

Secure attachments are vital for healthy development. Children who experience early care-giving that is sensitive and responsive to their needs will develop secure emotional attachments with their parents. They will also be more likely to cope with periods of separation, cope with transitional changes and overall will become more resilient to changes as they mature.

Even with healthy attachments and positive early experiences, the nature of childcare outside the home can still be quite stressful for young children. They are often secure in their daily home life and routine but changes to that routine involves them in having to:

- Develop other relationships (with adults and children) – Accommodate different environments and routines – Adjust their senses (smell, touch, taste, sight) – Negotiate sharing and turn-taking with a larger group – Manage their emotions, which usually involve anxiety, fear, anger etc – Learn to say Goodbye.

Children go through different stages of separation anxiety and it is helpful to know what these stages are. Remember however, that this is a guide and your child is a unique individual who may go through these stages at a different pace.

Infants – 6 months

Infants at this stage show the least signs of being upset by separation. Although they have learned to recognize a parents voice, smell and manner of handling, they will accept the comfort and assistance of someone who can interpret their cues for example, the different crying style for different needs (nappy change, food, boredom etc).

6 – 9 months

At this stage, babies prefer their parents to comfort them if they are available. A baby may have forgotten for while that their parent is not around (and this could last all day) but when the parent returns, they have remembered them and all the sad feelings return. Often you will hear it said “oh they were fine all day…until they saw you).

9 months – 2 years

This is the hardest stage of separation. They begin to realize that the parent doesn’t cease to exist when out of sight but they can’t keep the mental image of the parent in their mind. That is why you will find them constantly asking for mummy or daddy. They also tend to follow parents around and become angry, anxious or aggressive when the parent is out of sight. Unfamiliar people can be frightening at this stage.

3- 5 years

At this stage, children tend to suffer less from separation anxiety. They are able to talk about their feelings (especially if they feel emotionally safe to do so) and have experienced positive separations before. Children at this stage may however, regress for a while. For example, tantrums, thumb sucking, baby talk etc. Sometimes children can feel deserted and therefore, refuse to leave at the end of the day. Tricks may include not packing up, insisting on long drinks and other delay strategies. Parents are left dragging home the same child that they had to drag in earlier that day!

Below are some strategies that parents can you to assist in the transition from home to childcare/kindergarten.

1. Children pick up on the stress and anxiety of a parent (it’s called Social Referencing). How well YOU deal with the separation, will determine how well your child does. If you need time to ease into the idea of care outside the home, then be prepared for your child to feel it too.
2. Make sure you tell the person caring for your child, that she is used to being carried and/or comforted in a certain way. Now is not the time to making changes to these rituals (e.g no more soother, comfort rug etc).
3. Be specific and let your child know when you will be returning. ALWAYS say goodbye regardless of your child’s age- and ALWAYS return on time. This will build trust which is a crucial key to managing separation anxiety.
4. Plan your first week of childcare/kindergarten with flexibility in mind so you can return to pick your child up if he is distressed. Don’t allow your child to become distraught for long periods of time.
5. Ensure your child has the chance to visit their new environment prior to their first day (even babies need to experience this).
6. Start the transition in stages if you fear that your child is going to experience some anxiety.
7. Always be honest and don’t protect your child by lying to them. It is important that the trust bond is not broken at this stage.
8. If your child has a security object (blanket, toy etc) let them take it along during the transitional period.
9. Give as much information as possible to the person responsible for your child. For example, she rubs her ears when tiered, she isn’t used to sharing, we don’t wear shoes outside etc
10. Use positive statements: instead of saying at the end of the day “I really missed you” say something like “I’m really glad to see you”.
11. Don’t share too much of your emotions with your preschooler as it may make them feel guilty if they are having fun.
12. You may experience an overwhelming sensation when walking out of the door for the first few times. Remember it is acceptable and expected that you feel sadness.

Finally, if your child demonstrates a persistent reluctance to detach from you, or is constantly fearful, has nightmares or complains of physical symptoms when separation occurs, seek advise from your doctor.

The picture book Tears in a Treasure Box ISBN 0958141908 is a story about Sam who experiences separation anxiety and how his care giver supports him through the use of a special a treasure box (suitable for 3-6 years). Available from

Eleni McDermott is a writer and an early childhood educator. She is the author of three children’s picture books Tears in a Treasure Box, Cranky Granny and her latest release Alexander’s Extraordinary Gift. She has also written adult resource books and child development articles on a range of topics and presents workshops and seminars to parents and teachers. To purchase her books visit To preview her books and the full article “Separation Anxiety in early childhood” as well as other articles on child development visit

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