Separation anxiety is a common part of development for babies and toddlers. They often experience separation anxiety as they develop an understanding about their dependence on their caregivers. Typically, separation anxiety dissipates as the child learns that they are well looked after by other adults whom the caregiver trusts and therefore that they can cope without their significant caregivers. They will also have learnt that when their caregiver leaves they will return soon, so there is no need to worry.
However, for some children separation anxiety might not go away or might develop at a later stage during their life. The thought of separating from parents might be so distressing that it stops the child from taking part in everyday life. Children who experience high levels of distress when separating from their parents - or even at the thought of separating from their parents - might follow parents around the house, refuse to go somewhere without their parents (e.g. to school or to a friend’s place) or might report feeling sick when about to be separated from parents. Underlying these behaviours are often worries that something bad will happen to their parent(s) during the separation.
In a first step to understanding what is going on for your child, it is helpful to try to think about what might be causing your child’s separation anxiety. Was there a recent stressful event that might have triggered it, e.g. a loss of someone close to your child or a change in home or school environment? Is there something you as a parent are currently worried about that your child might be picking up on?
Whether you feel you have an idea of what might be going on for your child or not, it is important to talk to them and give them the space to share what they are feeling. Your child might also feel more secure if there is a predictable routine to the day and if they receive encouragement and praise for managing separations. It is also important that you as a parent stay calm leading up to the separations so that your child picks up on your confidence that the separation will be temporary.
However, if the difficulties are long-standing and your efforts to support your child in managing separations do not seem to bear fruit, professional help can support you as a family to explore what your child might be going through and your child to overcome the difficulties associated with separation anxiety.