For the first few months of life, babies can not distinguish caregivers from strangers. When they cry, they can easily be calmed and comforted by any person who make them feel loved and protected, regardless of relationship. By around 6 to 8 months, babies can now identify their primary care giver and realize that there is only one Mommy and Daddy. Hence, when the child is offered by his parents to be carried by somebody unfamiliar to him, the child starts to cry, inconsolable by any person except his parents. This phase of the child’s development is called “stranger anxiety”.

As the child starts to outgrow stranger anxiety, he would then have to pass through another phase of social development called “separation anxiety”. Separation anxiety occurs when the child, who has developed emotional attachment and security with his parents, feels anxious when his parents are gone. A child can exhibit his anxiety in many behaviors such as crying, shyness, clinginess, unusual silence, and unwillingness to interact with other familiar people around him.

Although separation anxiety is normal and temporary, the child must be helped in some ways. Separation may be perceived by the child as a traumatic and distressful event in his life, which can have a lasting psychological and emotional effect. Here are some ways to ease a child’s separation anxiety.

For babies and toddlers:

1. If you plan to leave, schedule it after the baby’s nap or feeding. It is observed that babies are less susceptible to anxiety when they are full and fresh from a nap

2. Acclimatize your baby by practicing separation for shorter periods and distances. A good example is when your child attempts to head off to the kitchen and you are left in the living room, wait for several minutes before going after him. By doing this, you are developing his sense of independence.

3. If you are a working parent, have your child a consistent primary caregiver. It is best that you leave your child with a caregiver who can be there for your child from infancy into toddlerhood.

4. If you must leave your child temporarily under the care of a relative, it is better to ask your relative to come to your house, rather than dropping your child off to your relative’s house.

5. Try to develop a consistent “goodbye” habit (e.g. simple wave or a special kiss) and tell him that you need to go and that you will be back very soon. Avoid repeating your goodbye ritual every time you leave. This will only make your child more anxious and insecure.

6. Above all, maintain a calm, strong and positive attitude toward your child every time you leave. Children are highly sensitive to your facial expression and will know from your voice and gestures. Showing your child that you are also emotionally affected will only reinforce anxiousness in your child.

For young children:

7. Establish trust and security with your child by honoring time commitments. For example, be sure to pick him up from day care or return home at the specified time. In this way, he will feel that your word can be trusted, so that the next time you leave and say that you will be back, the child will feel less anxious because he is already convinced that you will indeed be back as promised.

8. Make your child feel that you care about his feelings by telling him that you will miss him too every time you leave. Make an effort to explain why you need to leave him temporarily (e.g. you need to go to work so your can buy him milk), but assure him that you will be back very soon.

9. Read your child with children’s story books which tell about brave characters, and cite those times when he was brave and has done something independently just like the hero in the story. Role-playing has a big effect in molding the child’s behavior.

10. When separation is set at a later date and you plan to have him taken cared of by a relative, it is best to talk to your child about it in advance. Help him prepare for that day by anticipating positive outcomes and telling him how you can be reached if necessary.

11. If possible, make a call and talk to your child over the phone while you are away. Ask him how he is doing and tell him about feel-good stories. Hearing your voice will make him feel secure and less anxious.

Remember, children will normally outgrow separation anxiety by age 5. By then, they are able to spend time in the absence of their parents with less stress and anxiety. Helping your child ease his separation anxiety will allow him to get exposed to the real world, to experience life to the fullest and to explore new things and horizons.