Does your child cry and cling to you when you head for work? Do they throw a fit when you leave them in the care of another person? If the answer is yes to these questions, then what you may be seeing is separation anxiety in toddlers.
In this article, we discuss helpful topics and tips:
The toddler years bring newfound independence and, along with it, a common developmental milestone – separation anxiety. This phase is marked by a child's distress when separated from their parents or caregivers. It highlights the deep emotional bonds formed during early relationships. Understanding separation anxiety is crucial for parents and caregivers, offering insights into fostering emotional resilience in toddlers as they navigate the world around them.
Understanding Toddler Separation Anxiety and Recognising the Signs
Separation anxiety occurs when a child becomes anxious, distressed, or scared when they are separated from their parents or primary caregiver. While the common signs - crying, screaming, and throwing tantrums - can make you feel guilty and worried, keep in mind that separation anxiety is part of normal child development, especially as they learn that separation is just temporary.1 One significant thing to remember is that while separation anxiety in toddlers is common and healthy, the intensity and timing vary from one child to another.2
Identifying Common Behaviours and Emotions Associated with Toddler Separation Anxiety
Some children do not go through separation anxiety at all. Those who do, however, experience it differently. After your child turns 1 or once they start walking, they may want to explore more independently. That doesn’t mean they have it all figured out now, so being separated from their parents or caregiver can make them anxious, particularly when they are under stress or in a new situation or environment. There is a play between the need to be independent while still seeking to be confident by having a reliable person to fall back on, especially in challenging situations. There is also a contrast between their eagerness to explore while still being limited in their skills to get things done the way they want.
Here are the common behaviours and emotions associated with separation anxiety in toddlers:3
Clinginess when the toddler realises that they are about to be separated from you
Avoidance of separation triggers, such as reluctance to go to school because of worry over separation
Nighttime issues, such as refusal to go to sleep unless you’re with them or having nightmares
Excessive distress when parents/ caregivers are out of sight
Worrying that they may lose their parent or being scared that something bad will happen to them
Managing Separation Anxiety: Top Tips for Parents
While it may manifest as distress, separation anxiety in toddlers is common, normal, and healthy. With patience, preparedness, and understanding, you and your child can navigate this phase with grace.
Here are some tips on how to manage separation anxiety:
Tip 1: Discuss the Plan: Open Communication with Your Toddler
One reason why toddlers become anxious is because they believe that the separation is permanent. The concept of time is poorly developed at this stage. ‘Later’ is not well defined in their minds. Hence, easing separation anxiety calls for you to communicate with them clearly that you’ll see them again later. Inform them when you’ll be back, and you can even offer them a reward, such as getting ice cream when you pick them up or going to the mall tomorrow1.
If they are afraid, respond to them with understanding and compassion.
Avoid comments that trivialise their fears. “It’s nothing; why are you so fussy?”
Avoid being negative or critical about their anxiety – “Don’t be such a baby.”4
Give concrete definitions of time. ‘When the teacher says it's time to pack your bag, that will be when Mummy can come to get you.’
Practice with a visual coloured timer. ‘When the colour block becomes smaller, it will almost be time for Mummy to come to school.’
Tip 2: Start with Short Separations: Easing Your Toddler into Independence
Separation anxiety in toddlers can be eased with practice5. Start with brief periods of separation at short distances, then work your way to longer, farther ones. Why not leave your little one with grandparents or a loved one while you make a quick run to the store?
If there is a new caregiver, here’s a tip for leaving toddlers with other adults: Invite them over a few times so your child can get to know them. Are they about to start daycare? Visit the school a few times before the start of classes.6
Tip 3: Keep Goodbyes Positive: Fostering Confidence in Your Child
Separation anxiety in toddlers is often tough for parents, too. But, while you feel sad about leaving your child, remember to keep goodbyes quick and positive.
Make a ritual out of simple things, such as a goodbye kiss, a special hug, happy waving, or giving them their comfort toy.
Offer a comfort item, such as a favourite small keepsake or blanket, to accompany the child during your absence
Give your toddler a photo of you or a drawing they can keep as a comforting visual reminder
Tip 4: Stay Consistent: Building Trust and Security
Helping toddlers cope with separation involves consistency, as it helps build trust and allows your child to feel secure. For this reason, be consistent with your routine: the time and place for drop-off, the goodbye ritual, and the time you pick them up.5 This reduces unexpected factors that may stress them out and trigger or worsen their anxiety. If there’s a change in the routine, be sure to communicate why it’ll happen and for how long the change will be in place.
Of course, don’t forget to keep your promises. If you said you’d be back by five, try to be there at five.
Tip 5: Schedule Regular Time Apart: Turning Anxiety into Enjoyment
How to manage separation anxiety? Schedule regular time apart and help your child thrive while you’re away. Arrange playdates with neighbours’ kids once or twice a week, or consider enrolling them in short classes where they can meet and interact with other kids.
Acknowledging Parental Anxiety: It's Okay to Feel Anxious
It's completely natural for parents to feel anxious when their toddler is going through separation anxiety. After all, witnessing your child's distress can evoke a range of emotions, and it's important to recognise and acknowledge that these feelings are valid. So, don’t feel guilty and seek support from family, friends, and healthcare professionals. Take the time to care for your own well-being and trust the process of your child's growth. This helps create a positive environment for you and your little one during this transition period.
When to Seek Support: Identifying Ongoing Anxiety
Very young children from 4 months to 3 years of age commonly experience separation anxiety. And while the intensity, timing, and duration may vary, prolonged and severe symptoms should be addressed. These may suggest Separation Anxiety Disorder, a mental health challenge that deserves attention.
Separation Anxiety Disorder occurs when a child worries too much about being apart from a family member or loved one. They may worry about losing the person or that harm will befall them. If your child's separation anxiety persists or worsens after the age of four or five, seek guidance.
Your first clue about this condition is when it occurs. It’s true that normal separation anxiety may persist up to elementary years6. But in most cases, it disappears - or at least eases up - by the time the child is in preschool.4. According to experts, the first symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder manifest around the third or fourth grade7. The symptoms are more severe and go beyond distress and clinginess.
Watch out for the following signs and symptoms7:
Fearful and reluctant to be alone
Refusing to sleep alone or worrying too much about sleeping away from home
Extreme clinginess, even when at home
Panic or temper tantrums when they part ways with their parents or caregivers
Repeated nightmares which centre around the theme of separation
Worrying too much about getting lost
Worrying too much when separated from home or family
Too much anxiety about the safety of themselves or a loved one
Refusing to go to school
Frequent physical complaints, such as stomach aches or headaches
Muscle aches or tension
If your child has these symptoms or symptoms that are more severe than those experienced by children their age, it’s best to seek consultation with a healthcare professional. Severe symptoms that persist for at least 4 weeks and interfere with their daily routine may indicate Separation Anxiety Disorder4.
Challenges in their developmental profile may also manifest as separation anxiety. When children have delays in some developmental domains, they feel more confident when a reliable and trusted adult is with them to provide help when it is suddenly needed. If a child does not have appropriate language or motor skills or is weaker with socialisation, he or she will start to feel anxious in what is deemed an unpredictable environment. So always check their developmental profile with your regular paediatrician or family doctor. These differences may be very subtle to the naked eye.
Supporting Your Toddler's Development: A Parent's Role
A nurturing environment supports your toddler’s development during this phase of separation anxiety. Provide emotional support and foster a sense of security and confidence to ease their transition. This will help them grow from a clingy toddler who cries at the first sign of separation to a secure child who can explore and thrive in your absence.
A well-balanced and nutritious diet also plays a vital role in supporting your toddler's overall development. By ensuring your child gets a variety of nutrients from fruits, veggies, whole grains, and lean proteins, you're not just boosting their physical health but also empowering them for activities that strengthen their emotional resilience. Take the next big leap in your child's mental and physical development with milk formulas enriched with MFGM, DHA, and 2-FL. Experience the exceptional blend found in Enfagrow Pro A+, featuring a mix of MFGM, DHA, 2-FL, iron, and zinc. Don't miss out on providing your child with this unique nutritional support—act now and claim your free sample. Take a proactive step towards your child's well-being today.
Separation anxiety in toddlers is a natural aspect of their normal development. It occurs when children exhibit distress and clinginess during separation from their parents or caregivers. Although it typically diminishes as the child learns that the separation is temporary, parents can support the transition through practices, consistent routines, scheduling times apart, and ensuring proper nutrition for their physical and emotional well-being
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Looking for more information and tips to manage separation anxiety in toddlers? Read on.
Frequently Asked Questions on Separation Anxiety in Toddlers
1. Is separation anxiety normal in toddlers?
Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage where toddlers display distress when separated from their primary caregiver or familiar surroundings. It is a common and expected process of early childhood development.
2. What are the common signs of separation anxiety?
Common signs of separation anxiety in toddlers include clinginess, crying during separation, resistance to being apart from caregivers, fear of strangers, and physical symptoms like stomach aches or headaches.
3. Do you need to treat separation anxiety? How do you manage it?
Normal separation anxiety does not need treatment, as it goes away eventually. However, you can manage separation anxiety in toddlers by practising and scheduling separations, creating routines, offering reassurance, and fostering a secure environment.
4. What is the difference between normal separation anxiety and Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Normal separation anxiety is a temporary and age-appropriate reaction to separation, whereas Separation Anxiety Disorder is a more intense and prolonged condition that significantly interferes with a child's daily life. The latter may require therapy intervention and professional guidance.
Dr Lian Wee Bin
Paediatrics and Neonatal Specialist,
SpecialKids Child Health & Development Clinic
How to manage your child’s separation anxiety, https://www.unicef.org/parenting/child-care/managing-child-separation-anxiety.Accessed November 19, 2023
Separation Anxiety and Separation Anxiety Disorder, https://www.helpguide.org/articles/anxiety/separation-anxiety-and-separation-anxiety-disorder.htm.Accessed November 19, 2023
Separation anxiety in children, https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001542.htm.Accessed November 19, 2023
Separation anxiety in babies and children, https://raisingchildren.net.au/babies/behaviour/common-concerns/separation-anxiety.Accessed November 19, 2023
How to Ease Your Child’s Separation Anxiety, https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/Pages/Soothing-Your-Childs-Separation-Anxiety.aspx.Accessed November 19, 2023
Separation Anxiety, https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/sep-anxiety.html.Accessed November 19, 2023
Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children, https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=separation-anxiety-disorder-90-P02582.Accessed November 19, 2023