Separation Anxiety: Is there cause for concern?

By: Tina Boljevac

As the director of our Infant & Toddler Programs at College Street & Saint Paul Street, I’m constantly in awe, watching our little friends grow so rapidly, learning new skills and accomplishing amazing milestones every day, week and month that goes by! It seems as though all of our little “Bunnies” were newborns just a few weeks ago, and look at them now: rolling, sitting up, crawling, pulling up, cruising and walking, continually exploring their surroundings and looking for affirmation of their primary caregivers’ loving responsiveness every step of the way!

As infants move through different developmental stages, they inevitably hit the stage that is marked by separation anxiety. Separation anxiety, experienced both with the parents and with the teachers during the day, suddenly becomes very obvious (if it were up to babies, the teachers would not be allowed to leave the room)! If you’re the parent or caregiver of an infant or toddler, I want to assure you that THAT IS A WONDERFUL THING! As hard as it is to watch your child cry for you (and believe me, I know how hard that is – I am also experiencing it first hand!), understanding why babies are doing this and why it is a good thing, is very reassuring.

Why is this happening? When babies are about eight or nine months (could be somewhat earlier and/or later), they start to develop a sense of object permanence. This means that they start to understand that the objects and people who are out of their sight did not all of the sudden cease to exist (the blissful state of mind of the first few months 🙂 ), but are somewhere else. In their attempt to get these special people back in view, babies cry, and sometimes they cry very, very hard!

Why is this a good thing? Babies cry because they have learned that the special people in their lives are responsive to their needs. It goes something like this: “I cry, you come to me, you figure out what my need is, you meet that need, I’m happy now, and I trust that you will do the same next time!” Thus crying, in this sense, indicates that the child has established trust in his or her primary caregivers (parents, teachers), which is a crucial first step for a healthy emotional and social development. In order for a baby to establish that trust, he or she must form strong and secure attachments with the special people in his or her life.

There you have it – a strong and secure attachment to a particular person coupled with a sense of object permanence – and we have a very unhappy little person for a few moments after that special person leaves the room! However, when other responsible and caring adults care for the crying child, that child learns that there are other people who will be there to take care of him or her, and soon develops a broader sense of trust: trust in “the world.” So although it is heartbreaking to listen to a baby cry while experiencing this separation anxiety (no matter how briefly), it is important to know that the child is reaching important milestones in his or her stage of development – and the unhappiness won’t last forever! I promise! It is also important to remember that not all children react equally strongly to separations. If your little one doesn’t have a meltdown when you leave the room, this doesn’t now mean that he or she has not formed a secure attachment with you, or that he or she does not trust you. The severity (intensity, duration) of reaction is also largely influenced by your child’s temperament.

I hope, if your child is exhibiting separation anxiety right now, that this information helps you rest a little easier. If you would like more information about separation anxiety, trust vs. mistrust, object permanence, or any other topic, please let me know by posting your question in the Comments section of this post.

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