What you should know about separation anxiety—an interview with Kim Peterson

What you should know about separation anxiety—an interview with Kim Peterson
I remember when my then 18-month-old son wanted to be with me… and only me. Little that his dad or regular caregiver did could pry him away from me without tears. “Where’s that kid who would ‘go to anyone’?” I glumly wondered. Separation anxiety proved difficult for everybody—for my toddler who was clearly unhappy being away from me, for others who felt shunned despite wanting to help, and for me, who felt no flattery and instead exhaustion and frustration at being the object of his attachment.

Thankfully we were able to move beyond the phase, and while the little guy can still be attached to me, he’s nowhere near the anxiety he felt in the past. Other parents, however, can be struggling with their kids and separation anxiety. That’s why I’m excited and honored to welcome Kim Peterson, MA, a Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor and Registered Play Therapist, to Sleeping Should Be Easy. A regular SSBE reader and mom, Kim sat down with us for a Q&A to explain the ins and outs of separation anxiety:

Sleeping Should Be Easy: What exactly is separation anxiety?
Kim Peterson: Separation anxiety is when a child experiences anxiety when they are separated from a primary caregiver. They will become visibly upset when the parent begins to leave the room or hands them off to someone else. They may attempt to clamor back into your arms or cling tightly to your legs.

Separation anxiety is seen in most babies and children at some point and can be considered a normal part of development. Still, it can worry many parents because it happens so quickly. I remember when my son was 10 months old, he went to other people with no problem. Then, all of a sudden, he cried when I started to leave the room and looked at me with distressed eyes. I felt guilty and worried, although I really had no reason to worry.

SSBE: Is there a specific age where separation anxiety begins, peaks and ends?
KP: Every baby and child is different. Some experience separation anxiety around 8 months; for others it may be around 24 months, or anywhere in between. Your child may even experience separation anxiety at multiple stages of development, or they may never show anxiety about a parent leaving.

SSBE: Why does separation anxiety happen?
KP: There can be various reasons for separation anxiety, some which are centered around your child’s developmental stage. Babies develop a sense of object permanence around 5-7 months, which means they realize that objects (and people) exist even if they can’t see them anymore. So, when mom disappears into another room, the baby knows mom still exists, but they aren’t quite confident if or when she will return. It’s around this stage of development that we start to notice separation anxiety.

At the toddler stage, your little one has likely developed a sense of attachment to you. Even though she probably realizes you will return after leaving, being away from you is just upsetting and she is most comfortable and happy when you are around.

Separation anxiety can also be brought on by a transition or stressful event, such as beginning a childcare program, changing providers, a new sibling in the home, or moving or changing schools or day cares.

SSBE: How can parents help ease the child’s anxiety and help him or her feel comfortable without the parent?
KP: This question is probably best answered with a few simple tips:

  • Maintain as much normalcy and consistency to the child’s routine, providers, diet, and environment as possible. This is especially important if there has been a significant change in their life, such as a new sibling.
  • Try your best not to express your own worry or angst about leaving when it’s time to say good-bye. Show them there is nothing to fear.
  • You don’t want to prolong your departure, but be sure you tell them good-bye. Sneaking out can be confusing and it’s good for them to see there is nothing to worry about.
  • Acknowledge their feelings. “Riley, I can see you are sad and don’t want mommy to leave. I have to go, but I will see you when I get off of work today.” What they are experiencing is normal and I strongly believe in reassuring our children of that and offering them a loving gesture, even if it’s brief.

SSBE: Is there a way to prevent separation anxiety, or a way to better prepare for it?
KP: I don’t think there is necessarily a way to prevent separation anxiety altogether, but there are a few things you can do to ease the length or severity:

  • Prepare them for any upcoming changes by talking, reading books, and drawing pictures. Let them know what to expect.
  • For babies and toddlers, present them with plenty of opportunity early on to spend time with other adults, especially relatives and potential caregivers. I recommend starting this around 5-6 months.
  • Allow the child an opportunity to meet new teachers and visit new classrooms before they will be dropped off. This helps them have a visual of what they will experience and mentally prepare.
  • Establish a routine and as much consistency as possible.

SSBE: If a parent is concerned that her child’s separation anxiety may be extreme or lasting too long, when should she seek help from a professional?
KP: With every stage in a child’s development, there are “normal” behaviors that can seem to go too far. If you have a feeling something is not right, talk to your pediatrician or child therapist. As a parent, you are the expert on your child and if something is out of the ordinary, there is no harm in getting more information to ease that nagging feeling in the back of your mind.

I treated one preschool child who developed separation anxiety after learning about the sudden death of a family member. The child cried when mom walked into another room, refused to sleep in their own bed or take a bath without mom near, and was fearful and anxious for most of the day. This is an example of extreme separation anxiety.

SSBE: What resources can you recommend?
KP: There are some fabulous books for the kids out there. Use these to prepare your child for separation or to help ease their separation anxiety.

There are also some helpful reads available for parents:

Thank you, Kim for shedding some light on this often confusing and frustrating behavior in our kids. To learn more about Kim’s background and practice, visit her site, Kim’s Counseling Corner.

How have you dealt with separation anxiety with your kids? After reading this post, what new tips will you take to help ease separation anxiety?

p.s. If you liked what you read, you can subscribe and receive free full-text posts from Sleeping Should Be Easy in your email inbox. Or, tell us what you think about this post on Facebook and Twitter.

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10 thoughts on “What you should know about separation anxiety—an interview with Kim Peterson

  1. This was very helpful. Livi has always been very attached to my husband and I and most of it is undoubtedly due to her high need nature. Even as a tiny baby (so much younger than mentioned above), she only wanted to be held by us. Because of everything else, it was always my husband or I taking care of her, so she hasn’t really spent time with other adults.
    She definitely has separation anxiety and I think also stranger anxiety.
    The book recommendations sound very promising, so I am going to check out books for her and for myself.
    Thanks again for posting this.

  2. Pingback: What You Should Know About Separation Anxiety- Guest Post | Kim's Counseling Corner

  3. I’m so glad you posted this. When we were first dealng with separation anxiety with C, I remember feeling a great deal of guilt about it and even being told by some people that it was my fault for having mixed feelings about going back to work. How silly! Almost every mom does. But we handled it in all the recommended ways and though C is still a very well attached child, he generally does not struggle with separation anxiety. I would like to add one other picture book we really like: The Invisible String by Patrice Karst. We now talk about the invisible string when we’re going to be apart or even if he’s just having a rough day at home and it seems to help.

  4. We have dealt with separation anxiety off and on (but mostly on) since Eli was 6 months old. He is now 27 months and we can now leave him for brief periods (2-3 hours) with people he knows well. We’ve handled it mainly by just not leaving him. He is a high needs child and the couple of times we tried to leave him he never stopped crying at all. He has always been a very sensitive and anxious child and when things that upsetting happened we would then start seeing an uptick in night terrors as well. It just wasn’t worth it to put him through that even though it was pretty exhausting for me especially. I know that for many families that solution would just not be possible due to work or needing to be available for other family members. I am so glad we seem to now be on the other side of it, unless it resurfaces again. I think what helps now is that his language has finally developed enough that I can explain to him what is going to happen and what he can expect. Being very language delayed, until recently that was not the case. I really appreciate the book recommendations. Thank you!

  5. What a fantastic interview! Thank you so much for sharing this valuable information. My husband and I are seeing some early signs of separation anxiety at night. I appreciate everyone’s responses to this post and for the book suggestions.

  6. My daughter, who is 19 now, suffered separation anxiety around the age of 6. Everytime we would go out of town, even though my husband and I were with her, she vomited constantly. I knew after a couple of trips that something wasn’t right. I took her in for therapy and she was diagnosed. Her therapist recommended short term medication intervention and prescribed liquid Prozac. She took it for about 6-weeks and was taken off gradually and the separation anxiety/vomiting never returned. Don’t be afraid to get professionals involved as it will definitely help your child’s anxiety and yours–as parents, we suffer, too! Happy fourth!

    • Thanks for bringing this up, Julie. I’m so glad you were proactive in seeking help for your daughter and for the positive outcome after all these years.

      Kim actually gave some answers on when would be a good time to seek professional help and I unfortunately edited it out for length’s sake (although I now wish I hadn’t). In lieu of including that section in the post, I’ll add it here instead:

      —————————-
      I’m concerned my child’s separation anxiety may be extreme or lasting too long. When should I seek help from a professional?

      This is a great question. With every stage in our child’s development, there are “normal” behaviors that can seem to go too far. My advice is that if you have a feeling something is not right, talk to your pediatrician, or a child therapist. As a parent, you are the expert on your child and if something is out of the ordinary, there is no harm in getting more information to ease that nagging feeling in the back of your mind.

      As a therapist, I am going to consider several factors in determining if there may be something more than a “normal” phase of separation anxiety:
      1. The behaviors have lasted 6 weeks or more.
      2. Physical problems have potentially manifested as a result (severe diarrhea, ulcers in the mouth, complaints of headaches, etc.)
      3. The child is expressing extreme emotional reactions, such as vomiting or severe tantrums, over the event and is not responding to developmentally appropriate soothing techniques.
      4. Odd or unusual behaviors accompany the separation anxiety, such as hair pulling or head-banging.
      5. The anxiety has become worse over time.
      6. The separation anxiety is interfering with daily functioning. Some examples would be that a parent is unable leave the house or the child is distressed for most of their day or night.

      I treated one preschool child who developed separation anxiety after learning about the sudden death of a family member. The child cried when mom walked into another room, refused to sleep in their own bed or take a bath without mom near, and was fearful and anxious for most of the day. This is an example of extreme separation anxiety.
      ————————————–

  7. Pingback: Mom, Dad, and Toddler Adjust To New Baby | Kim's Counseling Corner

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