Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Separation Anxiety

This weekend I was blessed with being introduced to the beginnings of Separation Anxiety with my soon to be 9 month old daughter. We were visiting my grandparents and other relatives and everyone saw first hand how she would cry when I left the room or handed her off to another relative.  She kept reaching out for me and crying. I guess some of that could have been Stranger Anxiety as well. But sure enough, we got home and she was still getting upset when I left her for a split second to just go grab a glass of water. Still in earshot and eye shot, but to her, it's as if it is the end of the world!

Where do I begin on the topic of separation anxiety?? How many of you have suffered with this with your children or even with yourself? It starts in infancy and can resurface the first day of school, sleep-overs, going off to camp, high school, and college.  Heck, you may still have it as an adult when you leave your kids :)

The definition of separation anxiety from my textbook is: a wary reaction that infants and toddlers often display when separated from the person (s) to whom they are attached. AND it can be with any caregiver, but for the sake of this post, I am using 'mom' as caregiver.

Separation anxiety starts in the second half of the first year and peaks around 12-20 months of age. Nice. So I have a long way to go. It is supposed to decrease throughout infancy and preschool years.

Attachment Theories

Ah, attachment theories. In college I was part of a research study on 'Attachment' and we re-created the study by Ainsworth called "The Strange Situation." For those psych majors out there, I am sure you remember studying this and the psychologist John Bowlby (who wrote Attachment and Separation). I know, I won't go into technical school textbook stuff here, but I always found attachment stuff so interesting.

Basically in the strange situation study, the researcher found 3 types of attachment with babies and their caregiver: secure, insecure or anxious/avoidant.

In the study they had moms and their babies sitting in a room and the researchers watched how the baby reacted when a 'stranger' came into the room. They then watched how the baby reacted when the mom left the baby alone with the stranger and how the baby reacted when the mom returned to the room. Some babies could have cared less at the changes, some cried when the stranger came in, some cried when the mom left, etc.

If you are thinking, "oh no, does this mean my child is insecurely attached?" because your child is crying too much? Not to worry! During our study, a baby was securely attached if she cried when the mom left the room and was visibly upset by the separation, but greeted the mom happily when she returned. This means you are a responsive caregiver and are consistent in meeting their needs!

It was sad to see some of the babies not care at all when the stranger came in the room, did not cry when the mom left the room and did not notice when the mom came back in. No reaction at all=anxious/avoidant attachment. This is when a parent is impatient with their baby, expresses negative feelings toward them and basically don't like close contact with their babies. And my guess is if you are reading this mom blog, you are probably not in this category at all!

AND these are just theories that psychologists have come up with over the years. So nothing is set in stone here, and there are various theories out there about separation anxiety, not just this one.

So what is Separation Anxiety all about?

The main thing to remember is that it's a milestone that every baby goes through. Just like crawling, walking and talking- all babies go through this separation anxiety phase. It's a part of growing up.  They are learning 'object permanence'  and how things are still there even when they are not in their presence- just like when you take a ball away from your baby- they know it's still there and throw a fit! Same with caregivers. They wonder where the heck their mom went!

The best thing to do?

If it's creating a problem when dropping your child off at school or a daycare, or for stay at home moms?

-be consistent! React the same way each time you leave your child and return- say the same thing when you leave, answer their cries the same way, etc. For instance, each time you leave, give a hug or kiss and each time you return you do the same

-try to pick them up at the same time each day and drop off at the same time= consistency

-tell your child you will be back to get them and follow through on it

-at school, you can tell them something specific like, 'mommy will be back to pick you up after story time'- if they can't tell time, telling them the activity they will finish when they see you again can really help- and of course pick them up when you say you will, or you'll create even more anxiety :)

-answer your baby's cries and cues so they know to trust you- if you do this they will trust that their cries will be answered and not become anxious and wondering if this time mommy will answer me or this time she will ignore me

-some say it's better to leave the room with a sitter or relative and sneak out so your baby/child won't see you. I think this may work here and there, but in the long run will create anxiety because they didn't see you leave and you didn't tell them you were leaving- they wonder "what the heck happened and where did my mom go?" and then they won't trust you anymore

As kids get older, some of them still suffer from separation anxiety and get 'homesick' or afraid to go off to camp, even college! As your child gets older and still seems anxious, it's always a good idea to look at what is going on in the home. If parents are arguing too much, or there is stress at home, kids get anxious and worry when they are away from them.

But if everything is going well at home, again sometimes kids just get homesick. Could be their temperament. It does not mean you are a bad parent! We have enough to worry about and how everything we do will affect our kids.  Just continue to be consistent in your caregiving and maybe have your child take things one step at a time. Instead of a 4 week camp, start them off with a 1-2 day camp, build up to 1 week and then in a couple of years, they can try the 4 week camp.

And us parents can be anxious when we take our children to preschool or Kindergarten for the first time! And if we are anxious, kids can totally pick up on this and will get anxious too. So put on a smile and be as courageous as you can when they go off to school and your child will model this. Of course, also give them a huge, big, enormous hug goodbye too, so they know how much they are loved when they go off to school :)

Awh, I am getting anxious just thinking about that first day of school. I need to start practicing my calm reactions now, so when that day comes, I will hopefully be somewhat prepared. How have you coped with your kids going off to school? Any advice on separation anxiety for babies??


  1. Thank you for this post! I have a 13 month old that has been dealing with separation anxiety since he was 5 months old! I remembered the Bowlby study from college, but couldn't find it in any of the textbooks I had kept! I couldn't remember what the outcome of the study was! I have tried almost all the advice I have been given, but he still cries every now and then when I leave a room! I really think it is just part of his personality. I dread the first day of school too! I'm a stay at home mom so we don't get regular practice of being left with a sitter or at day care, but when he is with grandparents, I do take the time to say good-bye and have him watch me leave. I think that has made the biggest difference. But he still has his days when all he wants to do is be held by mommy!
    Good luck to you!

  2. School will be really good for him! I am so glad I enrolled my daughter in a mom's day out last Fall when she was 15 months old. It was hard at first but it really helped me and after a month she was reaching out for her teachers when I dropped her off!!

  3. Thanks for reading! Yes, it is hard with the separation anxiety, but they all go through it, if that makes you feel better. Putting my child in a mom's day out was a great way to get her used to being away from me. It was baby steps, going once a week from 9-12 and I think it was really good for her. It sounds like you are doing everything you can now. It will last probably for awhile until around 18 months or so, depending on the child. It's hard but I also try to keep remembering that one day I will miss my child wanting to be held all the time :) Good luck!