Separation anxiety

Quite a few parents have asked me to write an article about separation anxiety…

Between the ages of 6 months to 18 months, children will develop something called ‘separation anxiety’. They start to get clingy and fussy about where their primary caregiver is. When the primary caregiver leaves the room, the baby cries and screams and seeks the caregiver out. They get fussy about who they go to, even with people they know very well like grandparents or close family friends. It typically develops around 9 months of age.

First things first – separation anxiety is absolutely and completely normal. The child is not being an attention seeker or bunging it on.

Think about it.

This little person cannot do a single thing for him or her self. He has relied on you, the primary caregiver, for everything ever since he was born. You have fed him, kept him warm, sheltered him, changed his nappy, played with him, comforted him. Met all of his physical and emotional needs.

You are an integral part of his worldview. From about 6 months he starts to value his own life, and the whereabouts of his primary caregiver is a matter of life or death!!!! Your child has not yet developed the capacity to understand that you still exist if he can’t see you (object relations), so if you leave the room and are out of his sight you have disappeared forever. Panic sets in – he thinks that you are no longer there to maintain the support he needs to live. Separation anxiety is a survival mechanism, designed to keep you as close as possible for as long as possible.

I would be very concerned about a child who does not show some level of separation anxiety, especially around 9 to 12 months of age. Separation anxiety is related to the ‘attachment’ that your child has developed for you. This attachment is your child’s first ‘love’ relationship. Based on the child’s experience of this first relationship, the child determines how confident she can feel about engaging in relationships and whether she can:

• trust and depend on the person who is supposed to love and care for her; or
• expect to be hurt by someone who is supposed to love and care for her.

Studies over the past 40 years have shown that the child draws on his or her experience of relationships in early childhood in forming social and intimate relationships throughout childhood and adulthood. This is really important stuff!

I know it’s tough. You’ve been caring for this child all day, met her every demand, and possibly one or two other children (or more) as well. You’ve had months and months of sleep deprivation and thought you were getting to a place where you don’t need to be so hands on. The dishes are piling up in the sink. You are looking forward to having a shower without any spectators. And bang! separation anxiety hits.

One of my boys had such severe separation anxiety that he wanted to be held all day every day from about the age of six months to twelve months. If I put him down he screamed so loud the neighbours looked over the fence. He wouldn’t go to his Dad. So, I held him as much as I could. Yes I did.  Because meeting the need extinguishes the need (Brian Cade).  He was too heavy for a sling so I lumped him around on my hip, and I think he preferred the view from there rather than being on the floor. I got very good at doing things with one hand, and when I prepared meals I put him in the high chair in the kitchen so he could still be with me, but safely. I knew it would pass, and it did. 

I worked with a family years ago who had a 14 month old child who was clingy, constantly crying, not walking, and not saying any words. The mother was rejecting the baby and frustrated with him. She asked me what the baby needed and I said “YOU”. I explained to the parents that they needed to respond to the child with love and care and attention, not rejection, anger, and frustration. When I saw the family two weeks later the child was walking, happy to be separated from his Mum and playing for longer periods, constantly smiling, and starting to say words. What a transformation! The parents had met their child’s emotional needs during the two weeks that I hadn’t seen them and they didn’t leave the child distressed any longer.

If the parents hadn’t responded with kindness when they had and if they had allowed their child to continue to be distressed, the child would have been in a very difficult place indeed. His preoccupation with trying to keep his primary caregiver close to him through crying and being clingy was limiting other areas of his development. He wasn’t talking, walking, playing or exploring at the age of 14 months. The distress he was experiencing was releasing the stress hormone, cortisol, throughout his brain, and studies have shown that an excess of cortisol affects physical and mental health. The child’s behaviour would have become increasingly difficult and would have continued to impact on all areas of his development – social, emotional, intellectual, and physical. He could have grown up believing that he could not trust other people, and could have sought safety in numbing his senses, dismissing his own feelings, steeling his body, and hardening his heart (Diana Fosha).

Geoff Ferguson, an Australian practising as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in London, reminds me that it’s also about being a “good enough” parent rather than being a perfect parent. Through separation the child eventually learns that she is separate, and from that experience of reality she gradually develops greater independence – walking, talking, playing, socialising, etc. Remember when I said that I carried my son around wherever I went? That was when he was with me. He was in long daycare three days per week and had been since he was 8 weeks old because my employer at the time did not provide maternity leave and I had to use my holidays for leave. The severity of my son’s separation anxiety was possibly due to him being in daycare, but it was also one of the reasons he got through it so well.

So, what do we do with separation anxiety?

  • Learn to read your child’s cues. You don’t need an instruction manual for your child, he or she is the instruction manual (Circle of Security). If he is happily playing let him play, and watch over him, enjoy with him, delight in him. If he needs a cuddle give him a cuddle – protect, comfort, and help to organise his feelings by being with him, not dismissing or redirecting him from his feelings.
  • Tell your child what you are doing and where you are going. Even if you are just going into the next room. Young children have a greater receptive language than they do an expressive language. I was delighted one day, when a Mum had to leave the room to heat up the baby’s bottle. He was nicely settled in his pram, so she didn’t want to take him with her. He was only about four months old. She looked him in the eyes, and told him exactly what she was going to do and when she would be back. She clearly regarded him as a little person capable of thoughts and feelings, and it was always a pleasure to see him periodically and see what a secure, happy, and healthy child he was.
  • If you are out of your child’s sight in the next room or up the hall, speak to him or her (remember, they think you no longer exist because they can’t see you).
  • Acknowledge your child’s distress. Say something like “you got so upset because you thought I had disappeared, you were worried about where I was and you got sad and angry, I’m here now, I was in the bathroom”. Yes, little kids understand this stuff, and they appreciate it when you acknowledge their feelings rather than dismiss them or try to talk them out of it. Their feelings are legitimate and real for them.
  • Calm your anxiety about the child’s separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is natural and normal, and it is not a reflection on your parenting. Children can detect your anxiety through the mirror neurons in their brains, and your anxiety can make them more anxious.
  • If possible, start with small separations and increase the length of time and frequency gradually over time. Your child will become accustomed to seeing you go and return. He or she will still protest, but it will get better over time until he or she understands the pattern of leaving and returning.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a comfort item, for example, a small blanket, teddy, soft doll. A lot of parents don’t understand the importance of a comfort item and don’t encourage children to have one. Dr Donald Winnicott regarded a comfort item as “a substitute for mother”. Well, it was the 1940’s when women were usually the primary caregivers, but his wisdom still shines today. If you have to be separated from your child, her comfort item should be handy. If your childcare centre does not allow comfort items to come into the centre with the child, then question how child-focused the centre is. And always buy two of the item initially in case one becomes lost or misplaced.
  • Spend time playing with and enjoying your child as much as possible. Hugs, play, smiles, and laughter release oxytocin in the brain which counteracts that nasty stress hormone cortisol.
  • Play peek-a-boo and hide and seek (in the same room) with your child to help him or her to learn object permanence.

And here is another thing to think about…

Mothers often return to work from maternity leave when the child is 9 to 12 months of age. Just at the time when separation anxiety develops. If you know that you must return to work, as many women must, consider going back to work before the child is 9 months of age. Controversial I know, but it is a consideration.


Narelle Smith


* Many thanks to Geoff Ferguson for his support, encouragement, and advice.



Categories: Child Development


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