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Separation Anxiety: 7 Steps to Overcoming Clingy Behavior

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Separation anxiety bothers us. We Americans love independence and self-reliance so our child’s clinginess seems almost un-American. We also worry about how our child will handle going to school. We might have already had difficulty with starting childcare or preschool – lots of tears and stomach aches. Finally we do feel embarrassed and annoyed. We feel inconvenienced by our child’s neediness and then we feel guilty that we feel inconvenienced. Our child is obviously uncomfortable. When will this dependent, clingy, timid behavior end?

It helps to keep in mind that separation anxiety is developmental. It’s a sign of progress! Separation anxiety usually appears first at about the time that babies learn to crawl and cruise. It’s as if they realize that if they can move away from you, you also could move away from them. The best course is to follow you around and wail. Two-year-olds are devoted to their plans for world domination and you are the first subject of their tyranny. Toddlers would love to tell you what to do and to control your movements. Finally, preschoolers are newly aware of danger and quite rightly believe that clinging to your thigh is the best way to stay safe. At each point, children’s desire to keep us close reflects their emerging abilities. This means that separation anxiety is normal.

Separation anxiety can have other causes too. Some children are just naturally slow-to-warm-up and need more time to adjust to new situations. Some children have experienced a traumatic separation – because of a parent’s absence or their own hospitalization – and are fearful of another disruption. And sometimes we even teach our children to be dependent. If we or the child’s older siblings treat the youngest like a baby long after his infant days are past, then we inadvertently support anxious clinging. Kids act the way they think we want them to act and they are quick to pick up on the signals that we’re afraid for their safety and anxiously want to keep them close.

Separation anxiety can take many forms. Of course the child who hides behind you and refuses to go to preschool can be said to have separation anxiety. But we can also include the child who won’t go to bed by herself. We can include the child who favors one parent over the other. Separation anxiety may be behind a child’s refusal to participate along with other kids, preferring to stand on the sidelines with you, and also behind a child’s insistence that a best friend or sibling go along to every event. So what can you do about these behaviors?

Here are seven general principles to keep in mind:1. Understand what can be changed and what can’t. If your child has always been slow-to-warm-up to new things, even as an infant and if you’ve come to the conclusion that this is just how your child is… then you can’t change that. Don’t frustrate yourself and drive your child crazy by trying to make him into a person he’s not.

2. Take your child’s age into consideration. Is it possible that this is “just a stage”? Are you concerned about behavior that started recently? See if things don’t settle out on their own in a couple weeks.

3. Avoid creating an expectation for anxiety. Do you unconsciously shield your child from a person who stops to talk? Do you automatically pull your child closer when she’s confronted by a new situation? Try to notice and counteract the way you signal your nervousness.

4. Focus on one behavior at a time. Maybe your child screams when you leave her at childcare and insists that only her dad can get her dressed and won’t sleep in her own bed and on and on and on. She’s limiting herself in so many ways and you’d like to wave a magic wand and have it all be better. It’s actually easier to tackle one issue at a time.

5. Be understanding and supportive without shaming or enabling. Understanding is saying, ”I know this is hard for you and…” Being supportive is saying, “I’ll be right here. When you get over there, wave at me and I’ll wave back.”  Avoiding shaming means you never say, “Don’t be a baby” or “Come on. Be a big boy.” Avoiding enabling means not saying, “That’s okay. I’ll say it for you.”

6. Provide frequent opportunities for practice. When your child finds speaking up scary it’s natural to want to protect him from that. But he needs more opportunities to talk, not fewer. Instead of sheltering your child, make sure he gets around and has plenty of casual interactions.

7. Notice when your own discomfort is the source of your annoyance. If you find yourself getting impatient with your child’s separation issues, take a moment to figure out why. Are you annoyed because you feel like your child is letting you down or embarrassing you? Remember to separate your own feelings from your child’s needs.

Try to keep separation anxiety in perspective. Your child needs your support in learning to step out confidently on his own.

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson.  All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.