From around 6 months, babies become anxious and get clingy and cry when their parent or carer leaves them. This is a normal part of development, which young children usually grow out of by around 3 years.
Separation anxiety is a sign that a child realises how dependent they are on their carer, and that they have a growing awareness of their surroundings: they feel less safe without their parent or carer close by, and may also feel upset in new situations or with new people, even if their parent or carer is there. For a baby, it’s particularly frightening to lose sight of their caregiver, because they haven’t yet learnt that people and things continue to exist even when they can’t see them.
For toddlers, separation can be experienced as being left – they think “if you really loved me you would never leave me!” Separations will happen, and although they can be upsetting, children will learn to cope with them. If parents and carers can focus on consistently ensuring their child feels loved and understood, they’ll learn that when they are left it will be OK and that their carer will come back.
Levels of separation anxiety vary widely. Some toddlers may become upset when their parent or carer leaves, but are able to then enjoy playing with toys, other children and other caregivers. Sometimes however it might be difficult to settle them through comfort or distraction when the caregiver has gone. In some situations, the fear of separation can become so intense that the child spends all their time monitoring where their parent or caregiver is, not letting them out of their sight for a moment. In these cases, the child may not enjoy playing and interacting when the parent is gone. Usually, these responses to separation will lessen with time.
- Impact of the health crisis
The health crisis is impacting different families in different ways. Some children may be spending much more time with their carers, which may make separating more difficult again when they go back to nursery. Some children are being separated from people they are close to, such as a family member or their keyworker, for extended periods of time. It may be difficult for little children to understand why they can’t see their family members, or staff or friends from nursery. And it can be more difficult to reassure children if carers are anxious about these separations themselves.
- Strategies to help with separation anxiety
It is important to acknowledge with a parent or carer how scary it can be for them to leave their child. It can help to talk to parents and carers about strong feelings that may be brought up for them by the separation – it may be that they are feeling upset, guilty, relieved or worried.
Reassure parents and carers that the child’s distress at separation does not necessarily cause them harm, and that their child is learning important lessons that will allow them to become more independent.
Encourage parents and carers to think about separation before it takes place to get in touch with their own feelings, and how they may be expressing these feelings in their behaviour. Children are very sensitive to how parents and carers are feeling!
Encourage parents or carers to be positive and decisive when saying goodbye to their children. It’s important for parents to tell children that they are leaving, and to do so confidently and in an upbeat way. This will boost children’s confidence (even if not at first!) that it is safe to be left and that their parent will return.
- Top tips to share with parents
- Avoid overnight separations until the child is older where possible and avoid leaving your baby when they’re tired or ill – they need you at these times.
- Engage your baby in games that help them learn that people do not disappear when they go out of sight and that you will come back even if you go away – playing peek-a-boo, and hide-and-seek.
- Practice short separations from your baby to begin with – leave them for a few minutes with someone they are comfortable with. Gradually work towards longer separations and leaving them in less familiar settings.
- Help your child become familiar with the places they will be and the people they will be with. Similarly, help the substitute caregiver become familiar with your child – what they like, don’t like, specific worries and fears, and daily routine.
- Talk to your child about what you are going to do when you see them again, so they can look forward to it.
- Leave your child with a little reminder of you e.g. a photo, a little toy that they can keep with them.
- Make saying goodbye a positive time. Don’t sneak away, but make sure to say goodbye and tell them that you’re leaving. Even if you are feeling sad or worried, if you can smile and say goodbye confidently, your child will feel more confident.
- Give your baby a big hug to greet them when you return.
- Don’t be concerned if your child doesn’t greet you joyfully, they may be angry or avoiding to look at you. This is normal and try not to take offence. In fact, this is a good sign as it means they are confident enough in their relationship with you to tell you they are not happy. Tell them how happy you are to be back together, and how you missed them when you were apart.