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Separation Anxiety

October 17, 2017|Child & Adolescent

By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.

Separation anxiety, which generally begins at around 8-9 months and can last into toddlerhood, is a normal part of infant development. As distressing as it can be to a parent — you suddenly have a baby that cries frantically when you leave her with a sitter or even when you leave the room — it is a sign of normal, healthy maturation. Separation anxiety occurs due to a combination of a strong attachment to you and a new understanding of object permanence. Out of sight is no longer out of mind.

There are many simple things that you can do as a parent to ease your own distress and soothe your baby.

  • Don’t leave without making it clear to your child that you are leaving. Parents will sometimes try to sneak out, thinking that if the baby doesn’t notice, he will be okay. In fact, the parents are only shielding themselves from seeing the baby’s distress. When your child eventually does notice, she will be more bewildered and upset. If this happens repeatedly, she may develop an anxious clinging because she doesn’t trust that you won’t just disappear.
  • Practice coming and going. For example, you can practice just going from room to room in your house, or having a few very short stints with a sitter. This will build a memory bank for your child that it is okay, you always return.
  • If you are hiring a new sitter or going to a new daycare, have some preliminary visits to familiarize your child so that they won’t have to deal with the double stress of separation and novelty. You can also make sure your child has familiar comfort object (such as a favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or books) as reminders of familiarity to ease the separation. And remember, when you leave your child screaming at daycare or with a sitter, they are usually back to normal within minutes.  Daycare and preschool personnel have generally worked with hundreds of children, can identify if the separation reaction is out of the norm, and can be your allies in suggesting and implementing helpful strategies.

Sometimes older children will have difficulty with separation anxiety as well. Starting school, either kindergarten or at the beginning of each school year, is a common time for children to have trouble separating. All of the techniques that are useful for infants and toddlers apply, but may have to be tweaked. For example, toys may not be allowed in the class room, but a photo of the parent, a note from the parent, or some other object might be. A variety of different interventions may help and your child’s teacher should be a good resource for helpful ideas.

Sometimes, if the teacher allows you to stay in the classroom for a short time to ease your child into an activity, that is all that’s needed. Identifying a friend in class who can take your child under their wing when they come in can provide transitional comfort.  Another option is to have someone else take the child to school. That way the separation from the parent occurs in a more familiar, routine setting, not in the perhaps overwhelming or busier school or class. After a few days or weeks, you can probably go back to dropping your child off yourself.

In one case I remember, a well-liked teacher’s aide met the child at the school library and walked him to the class room. This allowed the student to say goodbye to mom or dad in a more relaxed setting and to feel secure in the one-to-one company of another trusted adult. In another example, one kindergarten child was fine after the teacher suggested that his dad wait for him at the school, after the school bus ride. Just breaking up the anxiety- provoking ride and going into the school building alone was enough to help the child adjust and within two days he was fine with boarding the bus alone, cheerfully waving goodbye. Finally, remember that the school guidance counselor, psychologist, or social worker can help determine causes and solutions if difficulty separating is persistent or extreme.


Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on






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