Afraid to say good­bye

Most ba­bies ex­pe­ri­ence sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety, but with th­ese handy tips you can nip the prob­lem in the bud, writes Terèsa Coetzee

Your Baby & Toddler - - Contents -

ONE DAY, YOUR BABY was a happy, con­fi­dent baby who gig­gled as she stretched out her arms to be picked up by ran­dom strangers, the next, she started to kick up a huge fuss as soon as you just got up to use the bath­room.

Even your best friends refuse to look af­ter her for an hour or two be­cause she screams un­con­trol­lably the minute you drive off in your car.

Ex­perts call this sud­den and strange be­hav­iour sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety. And yes, it is com­pletely nor­mal for a child to be­come un­rea­son­ably at­tached to the adults in their lives and then to feel in­tense fear and un­cer­tainty when this adult is gone for a while.

“Sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety is a nor­mal phase of her devel­op­ment,” says Cape Town clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist An­na­marie de Vil­liers.

“It is im­por­tant for you to un­der­stand that sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety is a nor­mal and nec­es­sary phase of a child’s devel­op­ment process. It rears its head in chil­dren be­tween the ages of 6 to 12 months and can con­tinue when your tod­dler is be­tween 2 and 5 years old.”


“Sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety is linked to a baby’s men­tal devel­op­ment,” says An­na­marie.

“Un­der the age of six months a baby ex­plores her en­vi­ron­ment mainly with her senses. Dur­ing this time the main sources of fear are loud noises, tem­per­a­tures that are too cold or too warm and the lack of proper care.”

Who takes care of a baby is ini­tially not that im­por­tant to her, and any lov­ing per­son can calm a baby. (That is why par­ents are of­ten far more emo­tional when it comes to leav­ing the baby with some­one new, than baby her­self.)

But be­tween 6 and 12 months the brain begins to as­so­ci­ate sen­sory in­for­ma­tion with move­ment.

“A baby begins to learn that her own move­ments can have sen­sory con­se­quences. When she stretches out her hand she is able to feel and touch. She can pick up items and even taste them,” says An­na­marie.

It is dur­ing this time that sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety usu­ally first sur­faces be­cause your baby’s brain is not yet ca­pa­ble to deal with the fact that some­one is not gone sim­ply be­cause they can’t see them any­more. When your baby does not see you she as­sumes that you left her per­ma­nently be­cause you are not in her line of vi­sion.

At this age ba­bies also start to re­alise that there is only one mom and one dad. They do not un­der­stand the con­cept of time just yet, so if mom or dad leaves the room even for just a sec­ond – all baby knows is that they are gone. Pos­si­bly for­ever!


At this age tod­dlers start de­vel­op­ing their imag­i­na­tion, says An­na­marie. “They are not able to dis­tin­guish what is fan­tasy and what is real. This is when they de­velop fears of the bo­gey­man, mon­sters, and bad­dies who lurk in the dark. They are still scared to be sep­a­rated from their par­ents.”

Luck­ily a tod­dler’s at­ten­tion can be di­verted quickly with a range of fun ac­tiv­i­ties so that she can de­vi­ate from her sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety. At some stage or another, how­ever, your tod­dler will need to re­alise that a new en­vi­ron­ment or set­ting is safe and that a par­ent or pri­mary care­giver will come back af­ter a short ab­sence.

Con­sole your­self with the knowl­edge that the child who is now glued to your hip will have enough con­fi­dence not to kick up a fuss when you drop her at school by the age of 5. Si­t­u­a­tions like mov­ing house, a change in babysit­ter and the birth of a new baby in the house can cause sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety to re­turn.


The health­ier your child’s self-es­teem, the less likely they are to ex­pe­ri­ence sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety.

An­na­marie says chil­dren with a healthy self-es­teem feel safe and se­cure in who they are. They tackle tasks with con­fi­dence. Th­ese chil­dren handle be­ing away from par­ents and care­givers much more eas­ily be­cause they feel se­cure. This will help chil­dren build a healthy self-es­teem: ✓ A sta­ble home and fam­ily en­vi­ron­ment ✓ Rou­tine ✓ Ba­bies mimic what they ex­pe­ri­ence. If mom is anx­ious, baby will be too ✓ Un­con­di­tional love and ac­cep­tance from a par­ent ✓ Pos­i­tive at­ten­tion. Praise her for good be­hav­iour. Don’t with­hold love and at­ten­tion when she misbehaves ✓ Spend time with your child. This builds a solid foun­da­tion for all her fu­ture re­la­tion­ships.


Sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety be­comes a prob­lem when it is no longer age-re­lated, meaning it sur­faces in chil­dren older than 5 years, says An­na­marie. The anx­i­ety would last for more than four weeks and put a strain on the nor­mal fam­ily life. Speak to a pro­fes­sional if this is the case.


A par­ent’s emo­tional anx­i­ety about be­ing sep­a­rated from their lit­tle cherub can add to that of the child. “Ex­am­ine your own feel­ings,” says An­na­marie. “If you are more anx­ious than nor­mal, seek help. If you want to handle your child’s sep­a­ra­tion anx­i­ety you have to show that you can go through life con­fi­dently.” YB

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