Separation Anxiety

Updated: May 6

Saying goodbye is hard for everyone!

Whether it is dropping off at daycare or school, or leaving them home with a caregiver or babysitter even if they are family, that moment of disconnection can feel painful for you both. Separation anxiety is common for our little ones, with a big peak between 9 and 12 months, and then again during the preschool years, when their sense of self and identity are growing by leaps and bounds. When separated from important adults in their life, they can feel scared. You are their safety net! This is a good sign showing positive attachment, but it can also be stressful, especially when they are clinging to you like a monkey and need to be peeled off you like a banana. Sometimes it comes out of nowhere and can be an isolated event, and sometimes it is part of a long phase. Here are some tips to help.



What to do in the moment


Validate Feelings

Dr. Daniel Siegel calls this, “name it to take it.” “You are sad that I am saying goodbye. I miss you too when we’re away! I will come back after snack. I know you will be safe and have LOTS of fun while I am away.”


Respond and Soothe

This is intuitive, so keep up the safety net. They truly are afraid or sad. Rub their back. Hold them and murmur, “I will come back after...” “I know you will be safe with X.” “We both have fun when we are away from each other.” Let them express their feelings, then validate them and QUICKLY say goodbye and show confidence in their caregiver by letting them handle the emotions after you leave. When you show that trust, in both your child and the caregiver, your child will feel it as well. Swiftly go. They will be fine!


Fake it until you make it

Showing confidence to your little one is so important. The calmer and more assured you are, the more they can “catch” your confidence and trust everything will be ok. Did you know we all have mirror neurons in our brains that allow us to feel other people’s emotions? Your child is particularly good at feeling your emotions and you feel theirs too. This is why we trigger each other so easily. It’s brain science! So fake it til you make it. Pull it together, get out quickly and cry in the car. You can do this!


Be confident, trusting and move quickly!



What to do when it becomes a pattern


Practice how to say goodbye

Have a special goodbye. Practice this at other times when they are feeling good. Talk about what happens when you say goodbye and how you always come back. Kids LOVE to pretend. Roleplay the morning routine, pretending to drive or walk to school or you leaving the house when the babysitter comes over. Practice taking deep breaths, saying goodbye with confidence, and having a fun day. This is not just for kids, it’s for you too! What will the goodbye look like for you? How will you react if there are big emotions from your little one? (Hint: practice taking deep breaths and remembering they will be JUST FINE.) Use stuffed animals, and swap roles so you are the preschooler and they are the parent saying goodbye.


Goal setting & progress monitoring

This helps to build executive functioning skills. You can start small. Maybe it’s getting through a high 5 without a meltdown. Then, leaving without having the caregiver pull them off you. Reassure them that it will get better and show faith that they can do it. “We’ll keep practicing! I know you can do this.” Instead of adding more anxiety, imagine yourself being their lighthouse in a storm.


Be patient

It can take weeks until that goodbye is a happy one. Or it can take just a few days. Be patient with your little one, and yourself. Their concept of time is not the same as a grownup, so it is hard for them to imagine you coming back. It feels to them as if they will be sad forever. Remind them you will always come back and that feelings change. It is ok to be sad now and soon they will be happy and having fun.


Practice, practice, practice.


Still stressed?

Take time to play with your kiddo. Little ones are more likely to express their feelings through pretend play or while drawing. Reading books about going to school or being with a babysitter are also helpful. Use stuffies or characters to ask, “Is that how it is for you?”, and talk about how parents always come back.



Book Recommendations

Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewey

Maisy Goes to Preschool by Lucy Cousins

What to Expect at Preschool by Heidi Murkoff

Just Me and My Babysitter by Mercer Mayer

Pirates Don’t Change Diapers by Melinda Long



Julietta Skoog is a Certified Positive Discipline Trainer with an Ed.S Degree in School Psychology and a Masters Degree in School Counseling from Seattle University. She is the co-founder of Sproutable, science-backed online parenting insights for pregnancy to preschool, helping multitasking and sleep-deprived parents everywhere. Her trauma-informed expertise includes early child development, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety, behavior disorders, Positive Discipline, Social Thinking, and mindfulness. Her popular keynote speeches, classes, and workshops in Seattle have been described as rejuvenating, motivating and inspiring. Julietta has three children, all of whom at some point have had to be peeled off her like a banana.

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