Managing separation anxiety in toddlers

Have you ever experienced the heart-wrenching scene of leaving your one-year-old child at daycare, only to witness them clinging to you desperately, tears streaming down their face? If this scenario sounds all too familiar, you're not alone. What you're witnessing is likely a manifestation of separation anxiety, a common phase of childhood development that can be distressing for both children and parents alike.


What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety typically emerges between the ages of one and two, as toddlers begin to grapple with the concept of separation from their primary caregivers. While this phase is entirely normal, it can leave parents feeling guilty, upset, and unsure of how to navigate this challenging period.

Separation anxiety is a natural response in which children experience intense distress when separated from their parents or caregivers. It stems from a fear of being abandoned or harmed and is often accompanied by clinginess, tears, and resistance to being comforted by others.

During infancy, babies typically adapt well to being cared for by others. However, as they grow older, they may become increasingly attached to their primary caregivers, leading to heightened anxiety when faced with separation.

Recognising the signs

It's essential for parents to recognise the signs of separation anxiety in their children. These may include:

  • Difficulty being left with others, accompanied by screaming or tantrums.
  • Insistence on sleeping in the parents' room or difficulty sleeping alone.
  • Fear of new people or situations.
  • Clinging behaviour and reluctance to leave the side of parents.
  • Worry or distress about the safety of family members.

If these symptoms persist for at least four weeks and interfere with daily functioning, it may indicate a more severe form of separation anxiety disorder.

How to manage separation anxiety

While separation anxiety can be challenging, there are strategies parents can employ to help ease their child's transition:

1. Timing is key

Avoid introducing new caregivers during the peak of separation anxiety, typically between eight months and one year of age. Schedule departures after naps or mealtimes when your child is likely to be more content.

2. Gradual introductions

Familiarise your child with new caregivers or environments gradually. Arrange playdates or visits with caregivers while you're present to build trust and familiarity.

3. Stay calm and consistent

Reassure your child that you'll return and maintain a calm demeanour during departures. Avoid sneaking away, as this can heighten anxiety.

4. Seek professional help

If separation anxiety persists or becomes severe, consider seeking guidance from a paediatrician or mental health professional. Treatments such as play therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, and family therapy can be effective in addressing separation anxiety disorder.

5. Praise and reward

Acknowledge your child's bravery and resilience when they successfully cope with separation. Offer praise and rewards to reinforce positive behaviour.

Separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development, but it can present challenges for both children and parents. Remember, with time and gentle guidance, most children gradually outgrow their fears and become more confident in navigating the world independently. Trust in yourself.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

Share this article with a friend
London, Greater London, W5
Written by Mansee Gupte, Psychotherapist (UK) Counselling Psychologist(India)
London, Greater London, W5

Mansee is a BACP accredited Psychotherapist with over 17 years of experience of working with children and young people. She has worked with several parents and conducted many workshops on parenting. She worked in NHS for 8 years with Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) with moderate to severe mental health issues.

Show comments

Find a therapist dealing with Separation anxiety

All therapists are verified professionals

All therapists are verified professionals