Separation anxiety

Many children experience anxiety when separating from their families when they first attend an early childhood service or start school.
Young boy clings to family member

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is the common and normal fear that children have of being away from their families.

A developmentally appropriate level of separation anxiety reflects the close attachment between children and their families. But it tends to lessen with age. However, if the anxiety becomes excessive, it can interfere with the child’s daily functioning and learning, and they may be at risk of developing an anxiety disorder. So, it’s important to help children and their families manage separation anxiety before it becomes problematic.

Read more about anxiety

  • Why does it happen?

    From around six months of age, many children begin to show anxiety when they’re away from close family members. As they don’t yet have a separate sense of self, babies see family members as part of themselves and so feel that a part of them is missing when they’re separated. Babies may not understand adults will come back after leaving them. Babies and young children may also feel anxious around unfamiliar people and in new settings.

    This anxiety tends to reduce over time as a child’s familiarity with their early childhood service or school increases. Older children also develop a separate sense of self, so better understand that their families will return. Children feel less anxious when they’re confident that they’ll see their family again. 

  • What are the signs?

    Children vary in their levels of emotional sensitivity 

    Some children worry while others are more carefree and don’t show anxiety when separating from family. Children also show their anxiety in different ways. Some may be visibly upset or appear nervous, clingy or withdrawn, while others may have physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches. 

    Common behaviours include: 
    • crying
    • tantrums
    • clinginess and not letting go of a family member
    • needing a favourite toy to settle
    • shyness
    • difficulty joining in social activities with other children
    • headaches
    • stomach aches and vomiting
    • difficulties sleeping
    • refusing to speak to family members or educators.
    Children’s anxiety is generally short-lived

    They’re quite often happily playing within a short time of their family leaving. Over time, most children learn to feel safe in their new surroundings and gradually experience less separation anxiety.

  • How can I help children manage this anxiety?

    Children’s mental health and wellbeing is supported when early childhood and school educators work with families to help build children’s resilience. 

    You can help children manage their separation anxiety by being calm, relaxed and reassuring, acknowledging their emotions and providing comfort. By being emotionally available and showing understanding about children’s fears, you help to manage children’s anxiety when it’s too big for them to manage on their own. But it’s important to find a balance between supporting and reassuring children and allowing children to practise managing their own emotions. Try to work closely with families and build trust with the child.

    Work with families 
    • Communicate regularly with the child’s family and check if there are any issues that may be increasing the child’s anxiety (for example, a death in the family, divorce or moving to a new house).
    • Develop a clear morning routine with the child’s family so that the child feels safe and can predict when family will leave and return. A positive goodbye routine may include family members sharing a high-five and a special goodbye hug.
    • Ask families to say ‘goodbye’ to their child, let them know when they’ll be back and where they’ll pick them up. Avoid lengthy goodbyes as this may increase separation anxiety.
    • Reassure families that the child is being supported and communicate which activities are used to help settle the child. 
    Build trust with the child
    • Greet the child each morning or connect them to other staff who the child knows well.
    • Be calm, warm and friendly.
    • Acknowledge their anxiety. Ask them to tell you what they’re feeling and if anything is worrying them.
    • Help the child become engaged in an enjoyable activity once they enter the room.
    • Increase the child’s feelings of safety and connectedness by suggesting they bring a familiar toy or photo from home.

    Be You Professional Learning

    Check out content on social and emotional learning (SEL) and teaching for resilience in the Learning Resilience domain.

  • When separation anxiety becomes more serious

    By preschool and school age, children are less likely to experience separation anxiety. At least, it’s intensity will reduce over time. However, a small number of children experience a level of anxiety that interferes with their daily functioning and learning.      

    When children become anxious more easily, more often and more intensely than other children, they may be diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, including separation anxiety disorder. About 4% of preschoolers and school-age children develop this condition. 

    Separation anxiety disorder is when the:
    • anxiety interferes with the child’s life
    • child has more severe anxiety than other children of the same age
    • child’s anxiety has continued for at least four weeks.
    If you’re concerned about a child’s level of anxiety, note whether:
    • the child appears more anxious, more often, than other children of their age and level
    • their anxiety stops them participating in activities at the service or school or with peers
    • their anxiety interferes with their ability to do things other children their age do easily
    • the fears seem out of proportion to the issues in their life
    • the child is not attending or refusing to attend the service or school.  

    If you think a child is showing more serious signs of anxiety, speak to their family about your concerns and suggest they talk to their general practitioner (GP). The child may need a referral to a mental health professional for an assessment. Psychological support for anxiety usually involves teaching children techniques to help them reduce their avoidance behaviours and manage their emotions more effectively.

    Be You Professional Learning

    Learn about providing support for children, young people and their families, by helping them access information and internal and external supports, in the module Provide.

  • References

    Battaglia, M., Touchette, E., Garon-Carrier, G., Dionne, G., Côté, S., Vitaro, F., Tremblay, R., & Boivin, M. (2015). Distinct trajectories of separation anxiety in the preschool years: persistence at school entry and early‐life associated factors. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 57(1), 39-46.

    Schniering, C.A., Hudson, J. L., & Rapee, R. M. (2000). Issues in the diagnosis and assessment of anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. Clinical Psychology Review, 20, 453-478.