Separation Anxiety: The Low Down

You can't go over it, you can't go under it so you have to go through it.

I write this after being heartbroken to leave my daughter at daycare for the second day where she stuck to me like a velcro koala bear. After the first day, she was well aware of the deal and wanted to try her best to short circuit the series of events!

As sad as it is. It is normal. Separation anxiety is a typical part of early and healthy psychological development. It peaks at certain ages as well as being impacted by life events. Children can be varied in how they show their separation anxiety and the intensity of their feeling demonstrations.

The developmental tasks of the first three years are, emotional regulation and exploration and learning. These two are in a forever sea saw and, the better one is emotionally regulated, the more confident and secure they are to explore and learn. I'm sure we can all understand very clearly what a two year old who is learning about emotional regulation looks like, AKA a very disregulated and confused - a million-emotions-all-in-one-minute-that-don't-make-sense! 

Security is about attachment to a primary carer and other important adults and people. As you know, a newborn baby is dependent on the parent/s to co-regulate every emotion. This is why the term fourth trimester works. It's like they're still in some sense so closely connected to you. Then slowly, they explore a little more, tolerate a little more time without your help while continuing to come back for emotional 'top ups' and reassurance.

Little babies don't have symptoms of separation anxiety like we see at the daycare drop off's of children 9+ months. This is because they hardly understand they're separate from you. This does not mean one can be reckless, it means that due to limited understanding and the need for close contact - even more care must be taken with saying goodbye, comfort, a warm welcome and consistency in whatever you do. Post 9 months, children go "oh ok that person can go and when they're gone they're gone for a while". They now have a concept of being seperate and your coming and going. This is where evolution kicks in. Think about it like this... There is no baby without a carer. The baby cannot survive. Nature knows this. The baby is programmed to know this. So, protest might ensue and little person must master the task of understanding that parents go and come back, that they will be safe and can explore and very slowly, their world gets bigger. 

We show them the way by modelling a confident approach to a drop off or separation, and sticking to it, being prepared, keeping them in mind by leaving a transitional object like a toy or favourite thing, saying goodbye but not loitering, and having a warm and positive reunion at pick up time. Over time, your child builds a map of how it goes and by having the map they feel safe and secure. 

Separation anxiety can come up in middle childhood and also teenage years. It can be a symptom of generalised anxiety (which has doubled in adolescents over the past twenty years) or it might be related to life changes including parental separation, natural disasters, trouble at school etc. Also, children might complain of somatic (body symptoms) like stomach ache or headache as a way of demonstrating their separation anxiety. If it is having an impact on everyday life then professional help and cognitive behaviour therapy can be very effective.

As for babies and the early childhood aged rockstars, well its a case of welcome the beast in, accept him and get through it. You can't go over it, you can't go around it so you have to go through it.


M. Anderson

B.A, M.Ed, PgDip ChFamPsych