Separation Anxiety: Causes, Symptoms, Tips, BooksBy Lisa Bundrick, LMSW
The author is a School Social Worker
It is normal for young children to struggle to adjust when separated from caregivers when going to daycare, school or when staying with another caregiver figure. Separation anxiety is when a child becomes distressed when away (or imagining being away from) from the home or a primary caregiver. For some children, this distress can impede their normal routines, such as going to school. Separation anxiety is normal in infants and toddlers until roughly the ages of 3-4. When this anxiety is present in children over 6 years of age, and/or is extreme, and/or continues over four weeks, the child may have a separation anxiety disorder and follow up with the child’s pediatrician or a mental health clinician is recommended.
Separation anxiety may occur when a child is separated from their primary caregiver(s) and feel unsafe in some way. Some other common causes may be a stress in a child’s life such as a significant change to a normal routine, the death of a loved one or pet, or a move to a new home or school. Tiredness, illness (personal or family) or family changes (ex. birth of a sibling or divorce) may also trigger separation anxiety. Some research shows that children who have “over-protective” parents may be more prone to separation anxiety; over-protective parents may have their own anxieties, which can feed a child’s anxiety (in some cases, separation anxiety may be the sign of the parent’s own anxiety, as the parent and child can feed each other’s anxieties). Additionally, some research points to a possible genetic component, as children with separation anxiety may have family members with anxiety or other mental health disorders.
Symptoms of separation anxiety can include:
- Constant worry about harm occurring to loved ones (without reason)
- Severe distress (ex. tantrums, excessive crying) and impairments in functioning (ex. difficulty leaving house, going to school, etc.)
- Difficulty falling asleep without the primary caregiver being near
- Nightmares with separation related themes
- A strong desire to go home or have contact with the primary caregiver when apart, which impedes functioning
- Frequent physical or somatic symptoms (ex. stomachache, headache, dizziness)
The following tips may help children who experience separation anxiety:
- Create a routine and stick with it. However, if you are not able to do the routine on a particular day, pre-set your child in advance with the plan. Let your child know that if there is a plan, everything will be okay.
- Never leave without saying goodbye. Explain where you will be and when you will be back.
- Consider a goodbye routine (ex. a kiss, then hi-five, and then hug- when the hug is over the child knows it is time for you to go). Don’t let your child prolong the goodbye. After you say goodbye, leave.
- If your child will not let go of you utilize a “transfer hug,” (lift your child for a hug then transfer her/her to the arms the adult he/she will be with.
- Listen to your child’s feelings, let him/her know you understand, but that he/she still needs to follow the rules.
- Talk about your child’s concerns. Be understanding, but also gently remind him/her that he/she survived the last separation.
- Keep calm during the separation, so your child doesn’t feed off your stress/anxiety. If you are calm, it will help your child to be calm.
- Encourage your child to participate in safe social and physical activities without you.
- Encourage good school attendance.
- Have your child bring a photo or small object from home he/she can keep with them.
- Prepare for the next day, the day before, with your child to ease morning stress.
- Offer choices when possible to give your child some sense of control (ex. meet you at the door or sitting at the table, choice of snack when home from school).
- Praise your child’s efforts and give him/her positive reinforcement for meeting small goals.
- Consider a reward system, such as a sticker on a chart each time he/she leaves for school without a fuss, working for a prize (ex. being able to choose what is for dinner, game time, etc.).
Books for parents to read with their child:
- I Love You All Day Long by Francesca Rusackas
- I Am Too Absolutely Small for School by Lauren Child
- The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn
- Wemberly Worried by Kevin Henkes
- Will I Have a Friend? by Miriam Cohen
Bernstein, Bettina and Pataki, Caroly (2011). Separation Anxiety and School Refusal.
Block, Jocelyn, and Smith, Melinda (2011). Separation Anxiety in Children- Easing Separation
Anxiety Disorder. Available:
Chakraburtty, Amal (2009). Separation Anxiety in Children. Available:
Harkaway, Jill (2011). Helping Your Child Deal with Separation Anxiety. Available:
No Author (No Date). 5 Tips to Tear Free Goodbyes.
Watkins, Carol E. (2001). Separation Anxiety in Young Children. Available:
Worrywisekids.org (2009). Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD). Available: