What is a typical separation fear?
Nearly all children between 6 months and 3 years old get clingy and cry if their caregivers leave them, even for a short time. Young babies don't understand time, so they think a parent who walks out of the room is gone forever. Babies can become anxious and fearful when a parent leaves their sight. This stage typically ends by 3 years of age. Young children may also:
- Have trouble being handed by their caregiver to another adult when being held.
- Have problems saying goodbye to a caregiver at school drop-off.
- Have difficulty saying goodnight and ask a caregiver to stay in the room while they fall asleep.
When should I be concerned about a child’s separation fear?
Some fear of being apart from a caregiver is typical even for older children but they are able to separate when minimal emotional and social support is given. Signs that a child may be experiencing excessive separation fears include:
For younger children:
- Crying or tantruming when caregiver leaves the room.
- Clinging or crying in new situations.
- Constantly following one caregiver around the home.
- Awakening and crying at night.
- Refusal to go to sleep without a parent nearby.
- Refusing to go to kindergarten/school to not be apart from a caregiver.
- Physical symptoms, such as headaches, bellyache, vomiting, when separating from care figures.
For older children:
- Fear that something bad will happen to a family member while away.
- Overwhelming need to know where caregivers are, and be in touch with them by phone or texting.
- Frequent stomach aches, headaches, or other body aches.
- Nightmares about bad things happening to family members or to themselves.
- Feeling safe at home and refusing to go to school, which may lead to academic problems and/or social isolation.
- Refusing to attend camp, to sleep at friends' homes, or to go on errands.
What can I do to help a child with excessive separation fear?
Caregivers know their children best. If you are a caregiver, there are a few things you may attempt:
- Encourage your child to face their fears. You can encourage your child to face new situations, avoid excessive criticism, and help them to carry out activities despite their fears.
- Ask school people to collaborate. Collaboration with school personnel is needed when difficulties with attendance at school are present. Once your child is ready to return to school, careful preparation is necessary to minimize potential difficulties.
- Gently implement the separation process. Separation is a process that should be introduced gently and incrementally. You may try to practice leaving your child with another trusted caregiver while staying nearby for a short time, gradually moving further and for longer periods. This tactic may also be used at night, where you stay close when saying goodnight and then gradually move further and further away.
- Teach your child about how fear works. You can explain to your child that sometimes being apart from a caregiver can be hard and scary. However, most of the time the things we fear are excessive and unrealistic. Because of that, confronting fearful situations can cause distress to decrease over time. You can explain to them that their physical symptoms (e.g., headaches, nausea, etc.) are caused by anxiety.
- Avoid swooping in and rescuing your child or allowing them to stay close instead of encouraging independent behavior. It is the instinct of many caregivers to try to help their children in any way that they can, especially if their child seems to be in distress. However well intentioned, it is true that these things can increase the child’s fears throughout the time.
If you have already tried some or most of these suggestions and the problems your child is facing persist, it may be time to seek out professional support.
Fear of being apart that is too frequent, intense, present in many different contexts, discrepant from those experienced by children the same age, and that negatively interferes with your child and family’s daily lives, may indicate the possibility of Separation Anxiety Disorder.
What kind of professional support can I seek out for help?
It is not unusual that some caregivers feel embarrassed, inadequate, or guilty if their child is struggling with excessive fear of being apart. But, if you are concerned about your child's excessive fear of being apart, support and guidance are available now. Communicate concerns during and between visits with your child's doctor.
Pediatricians or family physicians can help to address initial concerns and refer to specialized professionals. Also, whenever possible, a consultation with a mental health professional may be helpful. These professionals also work with caregivers so that they know how to support their children outside of therapy sessions.
The public system provides services through the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) and Centers of Multidisciplinary Assessment, Counseling, and Support (KEDASY).
Where to find more information
Specific, detailed, and clinical information on Separation Anxiety Disorder can be found at [clinical short guide at the program website].
If you want to know more about the closest available services for educational and public health systems for children and adolescent assistance across the country, go to our Services Mapping webpage here.
You can also find more information by pointing your phone camera at the QR code below or by clicking here.