Separation anxiety in your child’s first year
Along with the blowing out of the candle on his very first birthday cake, you may find that your child will celebrate turning one by becoming teary and clingy when you try to leave him with another carer. And this someone else could be his beloved grandmother who he’s seen every week for his entire life. While this sudden turn of events can be unsettling, separation anxiety is a perfectly normal part of childhood development.
How does separation anxiety develop?
Under 6 months:
- When your baby is a newborn, he will adapt to a range of caregivers quickly and easily.
- As long as his needs are being met, he will usually adjust well to other people.
- In the first few months, it’s more likely that you will be the one suffering from separation anxiety!
Between 4 and 7 months:
- Your baby will begin to understand that people and objects still exist even when he can’t see them – this is called object permanence.
- While he realises that you still exist when you’re not in his range of vision, he doesn’t have any concept of time and so can’t predict when you’ll return.
- At this age, a game of ‘Peekaboo’ is the best entertainment in the world.
Between 8 and 12 months:
- While your child is growing into an independent toddler, he may become unsure about being separated from you.
- Your child may become agitated and upset whenever you try to leave him.
- Regardless of where you’re going or who you’re leaving him with, he will cling to you and resist engaging with the other caregiver.
Separation anxiety in children
Separation anxiety can vary from child to child depending on your child’s temperament and how you respond to his anxiety. Left undealt with, in some circumstances separation anxiety can last right through to secondary school. In older children, however, separation anxiety is usually a symptom of a deeper and more complex problem that needs to be investigated properly.
While you are the best judge of your child’s temperament, most 12 month-old children have learnt the gentle art of manipulation – if you continually drop everything to respond every time your child’s cries, or often change your plans to accommodate your child’s separation anxiety, your child will learn that his behaviour is a great strategy to avoid separating from you.
Older children with separation anxiety:
Children with separation anxiety disorder are afraid of separating from their family because of concern that something bad will happen (to you or them) while you are separated. Consult your GP if:
- Your child is suffering from symptoms of panic (nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath)
- Your child has a panic attack before you separate
- Your child has nightmares about separation
- Your child resists sleeping alone
- Your child is preoccupied by concerns of being kidnapped of getting lost, or being able to keep himself safe without a parent being present.
How can I cope with my child’s separation anxiety?
Dealing with a child who is experiencing separation anxiety is a complicated business. You may feel:
- Reassured that your child is strongly attached to you
- Frustrated that separating is so difficult
- Upset by your child’s obvious distress when you separate
- Overwhelmed by your child’s neediness
Time will usually ease your child’s separation anxiety – it is only with repeated experience that your child will come to understand that you always return after you leave. He will also develop some much needed coping skills and independence, and in the meantime you can be gratified that the bond between the two of you is so strong.
This article was written by Ella Walsh for Kidspot. Sources include SA Government’s Parenting and Child Health.
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