How To Know If Your Child’s Separation Anxiety Is A Sign Something’s Wrong
Experts explain the difference between tears and trauma.
The first time I dropped off my 12-month-old son at daycare, we both cried. As a grown woman, I toughened up after a week or so — but he didn’t. Day after day, I’d drop him off, circle the block, and return to hear him (still) wailing through the door. While the administrators assured me his reaction was normal, something just didn’t feel... right. So, I consulted a child psychologist, who had a few questions upfront. Could I shadow him at daycare? (Nope — ‘twas COVID protocol.) Were there cameras therein? (Negative.) Had I spoken to other parents? (Not really....)
She prodded just enough to make me wonder whether my son’s tears were a sign of something worse than separation anxiety. Sure enough, after a few months of receiving Brightwheel photos of my kiddo in full zombie mode, I realized that his teachers weren’t letting him take morning naps — a frank form of torture for a sleepy baby, if you ask me. They also regularly immobilized him and his classmates by strapping them into seats for “circle time,” an activity that was totally age-inappropriate, the child psychologist told me. Eventually, we parted ways with our daycare and opted for a sitter that we could monitor more closely.
With my son now gearing up for preschool, I still don’t know whether tears at drop-off are par for the course or cause for concern. For wisdom beyond my motherly intuition, I reached out to Molly Seltzer, Ph.D., a psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Anxiety Behaviors Clinic, as well as Grace Berman, a licensed social worker at the Anxiety Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute.
Among babies and toddlers, responding to separation from a loved one by displaying signs of distress is a natural part of healthy social and cognitive development — even if your baby seems, like, really upset, Seltzer tells me. Why, besides the fact that they love you and you’re the best? It takes a while for youngs under 3 years old to get a grip on object permanence, the concept that things and people continue to exist even after they go out of sight. In other words, all that crying when you leave the room for four seconds to pee is actually quite normal.
Developmentally normal separation anxiety, Seltzer explains, tends to kick in between 6 and 12 months of age and peaks when babies reach 9 to 18 months of age. Although it generally dissipates by around age 3, the ability to tolerate distance from a caretaker depends on how much time a kid is used to spending away from their parents — one reason why one kid might trot right into kindergarten while another stalls at the door and cries enough tears for their whole class.
While changes like starting a new school, moving, or getting a new sibling can cause flare-ups in children of any age, interventions are only needed when anxiety is developmentally inappropriate, disruptive, or prolonged. Think a 4-year-old who cries throughout the entire school day or, ahem, a 1-year-old who continues to lose it at drop off every day for longer than one month.
Red Flags to Keep on Your Radar
Despite my son’s icky experience with daycare, “separation anxiety alone is not a sign of abuse, even if it is persistent,” Seltzer tells me. So, what is? “If your infant, baby, or toddler comes home with bruises, are consistently soiled or hungry, or if you notice concerning themes in their play like physical abuse, unsafe touch, or sexual behavior, these can all be signs of maltreatment.” Oh.
Berman adds that new separation anxiety in otherwise chill kids could also be cause for concern. “If kids have previously separated well and a new separation concern arises mid-year, this might be a sign that a problematic event has occurred and is worth exploring further with your child,” she says.
In such a case, create a safe space for dialogue with verbal kids, and be as observant as you can with non-verbal kids: Check out how they act around different adults at school and follow up on any new or unexplained bruises or marks. Now would also be a good time to kick your parental intuition into high gear. “Parents know their kids best,” Seltzer says of any suspicions that your child is being mistreated, in which case you should get them out of there ASAP and contact your local social services department.
In the absence of signs of abuse, if your kid worries that something bad will happen to them or you when you’re apart, has persistent nightmares, or is so adamant about not going places without you that they can’t function at school or enjoy social activities, they could be diagnosed with separation anxiety disorder, says Seltzer. The same goes for young kids with drop-off drama lasting more than four weeks, which may warrant an evaluation.
How to Help a Kid with Plain Ol’ Separation Anxiety
Because change can make it harder for children to develop and practice coping skills that help them deal with anxiety and separation, experts don’t recommend grand interventions for kids who have big feelings when parting ways with you. In fact, switching daycares or classes could make things worse, Seltzer points out. “Helping kids avoid anxiety-inducing situations is one proven way parents condition kids’ anxiety and make it stronger,” she tells me. What should we do, then?
Work on secure attachments.
Seltzer says that if you’re dealing with a baby or toddler, you can start by helping them develop “secure attachment,” or the ability to trust that their emotional and physical needs will be met in a consistent and predictable way. This helps foster independence so they can go off and explore the world on their own, knowing their caretaker will always have their back.
Schedule dedicated playtime.
Seltzer recommends spending a minimum of five to 10 solid minutes engaging in playful one-on-one time with your kid daily — and be sure to leave cell phones, teaching moments, and critique at the door. “This type of play can also help children build security and attachment to the other grown-ups who care for them when you’re not with them, which will make being apart from you easier,” she says. So, share these notes with your nanny.
While you might be inclined to cling to a kid who clings to you (hey, sometimes it’s nice to feel needed!), it’s vital to ensure they get some time with other caretakers or family members, too. “It’s actually helpful to not be with your child all the time,” Berman explains. “The more practice they have with healthy separation — being away from a parent and reconnecting when the parent returns — the better.”
Distancing yourself from your child can be as simple as spending a bit more time apart at home. Let your baby know you’ll be making dinner in the kitchen or taking the lengthy shower you deserve in the bathroom, and enlist anyone besides you to hang with them for 30 minutes to an hour while you slip into the other room. Next —ta-da! —come back to demonstrate how this separation thing always ends.
Linger in new environments.
While long goodbyes can make parting pricklier, parents of 12 to 24-month-olds struggling with daycare or school drop-offs can try hanging in the classroom just until their kid gets settled into an activity.
Validate their emotions. It never hurts to practice what Seltzer calls “emotional validation”— especially for older toddlers and kindergarteners. Simply acknowledge that drop off can be sad and scary (for all of us!) and remind them: “I’ll be back soon, you will be safe, and you are capable of being away from me.”
Promise to come back — and deliver. At pick-up, always circle back to remind your child that you kept on your promise to return. Praise them for doing a great job at school or daycare.
Make bravery a big deal.
Sometimes, all we need is a bit of bravery, or the ability to do something important even when we feel scared doing it, to overcome our anxieties. “The more kids practice being brave, the more they see that feeling scared doesn’t guarantee that disaster will strike and tough feelings don’t last forever, and the more confidence and resilience they build,” Seltzer explains.
So, tell your toddlers tales of firefighters and other heroes, she recommends. As parents, we can also shower our kids with praise when we see them acting brave (i.e., going to school even though they are worried). We can even reward them handsomely with a special afterschool activity or prize at the end of each week. Bravery FTW!
It’s no secret that kids pick up on their parents’ anxieties — it’s even more reason to be the picture of chill when separating from your kid. That means ixnay on the tears. “When parents can model a positive attitude and effective coping, kids are more likely to separate well,” Berman says.
The Bottom Line
Just because your child struggles with separation doesn’t mean there’s a capital-P Problem or that you should shield them from it... even if every school or daycare drop-off feels like a stab in the heart. “The experience of separation and return is essential to help babies solidify a sense of security,” says Seltzer, who stresses that it’s good for your baby to bond with other adults like a teacher, grandparent, or nanny, even from an early age.
Experts agree that separation should get easier with practice. While kids of all ages might struggle with getting used to a new teacher, class, and classroom at the beginning of the school year, this too shall pass! And if it doesn’t, a pediatrician or child psychologist can always provide a second opinion and/or a hand.