Separation Anxiety in Young Children: Dr. Robyn Silverman in Parents Magazine

Dr. Robyn Silverman in Parents Magazine

Dr. Robyn Silverman in Parents Magazine

Separation Anxiety in Infants and Toddlers

Dr. Robyn Silverman

I was recently interviewed for Parents Magazine, the July 2008 issue, out on stands now. The topic: Separation Anxiety in young children– what is it, when does it happen, and how to cope. Here are some high points:

What is Separation Anxiety? Separation anxiety in infancy is when the child expresses negative emotions such as sadness, loss, loneliness, discomfort and even fear when they are separated from the person they rely on the most—usually this means Mom.

When does it happen? Infants can begin to show signs of separation anxiety as early as 6 or 7 months but usually it peeks during the 6 months following the child’s 1st birthday—between 12- 18 months.

Why does it happen? Separation anxiety happens as a result of 2 converging types of development—cognitive development, which is essentially the intellectual growth in children, and social/emotional development, which centers around a child’s ability to connect, trust, and create a bond with others.

On the cognitive side, between 4-8 months and more strongly between 12- 18 months, the infant develops something called object permanence—the knowledge that objects still exist even when we can’t see them—and essentially, they know that something is missing and in this case, that something is you. Of course, while they put 2 and 2 together and know when your about to leave, they don’t have the capacity yet to know when you’ll return.

On the social-emotional side, they have created a bond with the parent called “attachment” and when this is a healthy, secure attachment, the child feels safe and comfortable in the parent’s presence. The flip side of this is that they can feel anxious when not in your presence—and that’s where we see the third part of the puzzle- stranger anxiety which is when they feel scared in the presence of strangers or people that they don’t know really well.

So let’s put it all together—they’ve developed object permanence and can tell when you’re about to leave but not you’re your going to come back or frankly, if you’re going to come back—this makes them anxious—they’ve created a bond with you (as they can distinguish between familiar and unfamiliar adults) which makes them feel safe and comfortable when they’re with you and less comfortable and more anxious when they’re not with you and finally, they’ve developed stranger anxiety which makes them feel anxious in the presence of strangers—a fear that becomes more pronounced when Mom (or whomever the caretaker is) is not around.

A fourth component can come into play, in my opinion, is something called social referencing—which is when the child reads the response of the parent and reacts accordingly. If the parent is comfortable and calm, the child is more likely to feel the same—but when Mom or Dad are very anxious, the child reads this from the feel of Mom’s body, her facial expressions, her body language, and the child’s separation anxiety will go through the roof. If there is one thing that infant’s rely on is trust. And if the parent isn’t showing that they trust the situation or the temporary caretaker, the child will sense it and the anxiety will go up.

How do different children manifest separation anxiety? Children manifest separation anxiety through behaviors such as crying, whining, calling out, clinging, whimpering, following, burying their head in their parents shoulder, hiding behind the parent, silence, and unwillingness to interact with others.

Dr. Robyn Silverman‘s ABCDE Goodbye Plan:

(1) Be Affectionate—give a hug and a kiss, tell him how much you love him

(2) Be Brief– don’t linger because that will increase signs of sep anxiety

(3) Be Clear that you will be back and if you can, you can even tell them when (after nap, before dinner, after Elmo is on TV)

(4) Be Directive– “Show Aunt Rosie your favorite bear” “Teach Grandma how to play Peek-a-boo,” “Show Mary where we keep your favorite video—she wants to watch it with you!” This both gets them excited about what they’ll be doing, gives them something to do, and let’s them know what’s coming next.

(5) And perhaps most importantly, EXIT.

I know, it’s hard on you too, isn’t it? But you need to be strong for your child. While it may be difficult in the beginning, everyone will be happier in the long run!

Have a Powerful Week!

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4 Responses

  1. Dr Robyn, how is this different from older children that have difficulty or apprehension about being away from their parents?

    What strategies would you recommend to aid them?

  2. […] Separation Anxiety in Young Children: Dr. Robyn Silverman in Parents Magazine […]

  3. Dear Dr. Silverman,
    I came across you and this article while looking for advice on another topic, but I wanted to make a comment about this. I understand and agree with your advice about separating, but I wish that professionals would also acknowledge that there is more than one answer to this problem. My son was adopted (like your soon-to be-daughter!) and adoptive parenting sometimes requires unique solutions, which you will find out. He was 5.5 months old when we adopted him, and was already forming a healthy attachment to his foster mom. So when we separate, there is an extra level of inherent anxiety. Add to this that he is also very intense. He is the kind of kid that if he gets worked up, he will throw up. That happened one day, when my husband and I left and tried to follow the advice you give (which I learned elsewhere). He didn’t settle down. He cried for 45 minutes and then threw up. He was with a babysitter he already had built a relationship with and we all trusted her already. (and he wasn’t sick- the babysitter reported that he was just that upset and I believe her) I stopped following advice and decided to follow my heart and came up with a technique that works for my family. It really is not contradictory to your advice except for the “don’t linger” part. I give him 30 minutes to transition, and I tell him ahead of time that I won’t leave right away. I pay attention to him, but encourage the babysitter to engage him as much as possible, and not talk to me too much. I engage him in informing the sitter of what she need to know. Then I do some kind of caring for him. Change diaper/ help go potty, prepare a snack and set in on the table for him, help get dressed if they are going out, etc. Then I try to help him start an activity with the sitter, as you advised. If he still resists or says don’t go, I tell him that I won’t leave until he feels good about it. And then I try helping with engaging an activity. This is going so smoothly now that it doesn’t always take 30 minutes. And I never leave him crying anymore. He always happily says, “bye, mommy” when he is ready, even if 2 minutes prior he was pulling me by the hand to stay. I realize that this would not work with all children, but why can’t professionals tell us that “don’t linger” won’t work for all children? (Maybe you do, and I haven’t come across it yet). One of the things I find hard is when I/we are trying to leave and the sitter or someone else is saying things like, “make it quick” to me or “you have to let mommy go” to him. It just raises my anxiety and his and the very moment that I need to be strong for him. Part of the advice about separating should be directed at other people on how to not raise the tension level. Babysitters and caregivers listen more when I can say that the advice in not just me, but is what the professionals say, even if I am the one delivering the advice.
    In general, I find that most advice only applies to some children, or even most children. Sometimes my child is the one who some particular piece of advice doesn’t apply to. Isn’t everyone sometimes in that minority?
    Please help create more understanding. I like what you have to say and you are good at what you do. Thank you for providing this resource for parents.

  4. […] actually spoke about this with Parents Magazine in the July 2008 issue.  Separation anxiety is seen in many children to varying degrees.  It can […]

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