We've all seen separation anxiety, or worse yet, lived it: The little child clinging to his mother's leg for dear life, crying, "Don't go, Mommy, don't go!" It's normal for children to have some trouble separating from caretakers. It's a sign of bonding and of the strong relationship that is important for nurturing.
Separation anxiety begins in the second half of baby's first year. That's when babies begin to understand that those they love exist even when they can't see them. It's also when they start to be uncomfortable with people they don't know well. It peaks at 18 to 24 months of age, but continues through age six or so as children venture out into the world of new experiences — and then back to the comfort of home.
Each child is different. You can see this at any school or daycare center. Some children run in with hardly a glance backward when they are dropped off. Some are being pried tearfully off their parents by staff members. Sometimes children separate well one day and then won't the next, depending on their mood and the circumstances. It's an emotional tug of war between the need for security and the desire for independence.
If your child will be separating from you to go to daycare, school, or an activity, here are some ideas to make the transition go more smoothly:
If after a week or so the crying hasn't stopped when you call and staff tell you that your child is miserable for a large portion of the day or program if not all of it, reevaluate the situation.
The place or activity may not be a good fit for your child. Make a surprise visit; watch interactions between staff and children, watch how the interactions between children are managed and get a sense of the activities and routines. Every child has different needs when it comes to interactions, activities, structure, etc. If anything doesn’t seem right, or if the fit is wrong, look for a different program.
Your child may not be ready to be away from you, especially if your child is young — younger than 4 years — or if there has been a major life change such as divorce or a new sibling. Keeping him at home for a few months (or until the next school year) and trying shorter separations (swim class, movement class, etc) may be your best bets if they are realistic options.
But if work demands or your child's age necessitates that he be in school, then talk to your doctor and the daycare or school staff about ways to make the transition and experience better. (Often more emphatic variations of the above tips, for a bit longer, will do the trick.)
Sometimes separation anxiety can be serious and interfere with the child's life and health. This may be happening if your child:
If any of these are occurring, call your doctor. Together you can figure out the best way to help your child. Sometimes advice from or visits with a mental health professional are necessary.
Usually, though, with love and patience children learn to separate successfully and enter the exciting world outside the home, with all its adventures and possibilities.
Claire McCarthy, M.D., is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.