So many parents contact me regarding separation anxiety. In some cases, the anxiety is a normal developmental stage, in others it is part of a separation issues which is causing the child anxiety symptoms. So, how do we know the difference?
Around 7 to 8 months old, children develop a concept called object permanence. This means that they understand that something still exists even when it is out of sight. Think about young children for a moment, and how, if you hide a toy they do not go looking for it, and may even cry when it is not in sight? Once a child has object permanence they will seek out toys or people when they are not visible. It is therefore natural, that at around this stage children can want to stay with primary carers and not want them out of sight. Most children will naturally work through this stage with no issues.
However, for some children, around 15-18mths there can be a secondary bout of this separation anxiety. The core part is that children’s brains are developing at rapid speeds and constantly from birth and as such, all children experience stages at slightly different times and in slightly different orders. For some children, around 15 months it can be common for a second stage of anxiety around leaving primary carers. This is generally identified by upset, crying or screaming when their primary carer is out of sight, even if they are in the house still.
Most children, will again, move through this, but there are some things that we can do to support them with the transition:
- Keep routines really consistent (meals, sleeps, bedtimes) so that your child’s brain develops a strong understanding of ‘what comes next’. A lack of consistent routines can cause uncertainty and concern in children and lend itself to anxiety.
- Monitor when the anxiety is greater – anxiety often presents itself in similar situations, observing these can be key to support, frequently it can be found when tired, hungry – if you identify that these cues have a pattern, on these occasions keep your routines really tight and look at how you can adjust to support, for instance, bring meals forward by 15 minutes to prevent the rise of anxious feelings.
- Be present – if you are doing things and your child is in the room or high chair, support them to develop attention on toys and games (avoid screens) so that they can foster independence and be happy being near you but not on you. Give lots of praise, reassurance and sing and interact.
- Build confidence in saying goodbye – If you are leaving your child for the first time, build up the time in increments e.g. 15 – 30 – 45 – 60 – 90 minutes to build confidence and consistency. Develop consistent routines and do not ‘disappear’ as this will fuel anxiety. However, you may leave a comforter or toy with familiar scents on to support your child.
- Goodbye routines – When you need to do things, develop a clear and quick good bye routine, that is always consistent and do not linger or make extra fuss as this will add to the anxiety and feed your child a worry that something is wrong – however, when you do return make a big fuss and give lots of praise and positive reinforcement.
- Smile when leaving – children quickly pick up our cues – if you need to leave, smile and keep a calm expression and voice so that they do not pick up that there might be something to be fearful of.
- Build up time – when leaving, keep goodbye routines consistent, start with short periods, praise when you return and build the time up so she builds confidence and independence
- Boost self-esteem and independence – praise behaviours such as play, interactions with others and when they are brave to grow confidence in the behaviours that you want them to develop.
Overall, remember that every child is different. Some children are particularly sensitive so may need much more support and reinforcement that others, this does not mean that something is wrong, just that they need more time to build confidence and independence. Work at THEIR speed, not the speed of others. The more time you spend getting things consistent and right for your child, the less likely they are to regress later.