How to Help a Child with Separation Anxiety

Help your child with separation anxiety learn to manage his distress.
Cultura RM/Innocenti Premium / Cultura / Getty Images

Separation anxiety is a normal occurrence among young children. It usually begins around 6 months of age, and becomes evident when a baby cries when the primary caregiver is out of sight.

During the toddler years and preschool years, children with separation anxiety become upset when being left with a babysitter or when attending daycare. For some children, separation anxiety also occurs when they’re alone in their bedroom at bedtime.

Most children overcome separation anxiety prior to starting school. But separation anxiety can last throughout childhood and even to adolescence. So it’s important to take steps to help your child outgrow separation anxiety.

How to Help with Bedtime Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety at bedtime can be a big problem for toddlers who struggle to understand that you’re still close by when you’re out of sight. A toddler with separation anxiety may throw a temper tantrum or may climb out of bed repeatedly to find you. Their anxiety may interfere with their sleep.

If your toddler struggles with separation anxiety, establish a calming bedtime routine. Read stories together and snuggle. Then, when the clock strikes bedtime, give one last hug and kiss before leaving your child to go to sleep. Staying longer because he begs you to read one more story, or because he throws a temper tantrum, will only reinforce those behaviors.

Take steps to keep your toddler in bed. Tell him you’ll check on him in 15 minutes if he stays in his bed and follow through accordingly. Leave the door open, and each time he gets out of bed, close it a little bit more.  

With clear and consistent limits, your child will learn to manage his bedtime distress on his own.

Letting him sleep in your bed or in your room will only delay the struggle that it will take to get him to sleep on his own. Teaching him to fall asleep independently will increase the likelihood that your toddler will get plenty of sleep.

How to Help Your Child When You’re Separated

Some children experience separation anxiety any time they’re apart from a primary caregiver. Other children only experience separation anxiety when they’re separated from both parents.

Whether you’re child gets really upset when you drop him off at daycare, or he becomes really clingy when you try to leave him with Grandma, here are some tips to help him overcome separation anxiety:

  • Only leave your child with familiar people. Help your child get to know any new caregivers by meeting them in-person a few times before leaving him alone with them.
  • Let your child know the plan. Don’t trick your child into going to daycare by telling him he’s going to get an ice cream. Instead, tell him the plan a little bit ahead of time so he can practice tolerating his anxiety.
  • Give your child a security item. Let your child take along his favorite blanket or give him a picture of you, if it will help reduce his distress.
  • Perform a quick good-bye ritual. Develop a quick routine that you perform each time you say good-bye. A kiss, hug, and a high-five as you walk out the door can provide him with the reassurance he needs that you’re coming back.
  • Briefly acknowledge your child’s distress and ignore the ongoing behavior. Validate your child’s feelings by saying, “I know you’re sad I’m leaving,” but don’t pay too much attention to your child’s protests that he doesn’t want you to leave. Ignore any pleading or screaming and continue on your way.
  • Remain consistent. Separation anxiety improves when children trust that you’re going to return. So when you show your child that you’re reliable and consistent, he’ll be less anxious when you leave.

When to Seek Professional Help

Separation anxiety can turn into a separation anxiety disorder. If your child’s fear becomes excessive, or it starts to interfere with his daily life, seek professional help. Contact a mental health professional or talk to your child’s pediatrician for assistance.

Continue Reading