“Don’t Leave Me!” (Tips for coping with Separation Anxiety)

I love when my babysitter comes.  It’s a recent development, as we’ve had a hard time keeping part time babysitters around for long.  At one point, mid-way through Sean’s year long touring adventure, my latest babysitter quit with no notice and no goodbye to my kids, who had come to think of her as family.  That was it for me.  I decided that I couldn’t possibly put them through yet another transition while Sean was on tour.  There were some long days for me, but the kids were happy and well adjusted, so it seemed worth it.

Now that Sean has been back for 6 months, and before he tours again, I decided that it’s time to get a new babysitter in our lives.  It’s time for some much needed mommy time!  And so our wonderful new babysitter entered our lives.  The kids took an immediate liking to her.  Riley enjoys adventures out during quiet time, and Liam loves the captive audience and non-stop car play when Riley and I have special time.  Everybody wins.

Still, despite the seemingly perfect match, separation anxiety creeps in from time to time.

Separation anxiety is a very normal part of child development.  It can start as early as 6-8 months, when babies first realize that their parents actually live separate lives from them.  They fear abandonment when a caregiver leaves the room to head to the bathroom.  Separation anxiety peaks between 12-24 months. Children have a strong sense of attachment to their parents at this age.  It most often strikes when a parent is leaving for work or going out for a few errands, but it can even happen at night.  Separation often resurfaces during the preschool years, when children are working on autonomy. The desire to be independent versus the need to feel protected is a near constant struggle for preschoolers.  Sometimes even the kids who rarely seemed to struggle with separation along the way suddenly decide they just want to stick close to mom or dad.

The good news is that the vast majority of kids will outgrow separation anxiety (only 4% of children suffer from Separation Anxiety Disorder).  The bad news is that it can happen almost overnight, and it can be exhausting for parents.  Below are some tips to help you help your child separate:

1. Familiar faces: Starting at around 6 months, it’s a good idea to leave your baby with familiar caregivers (like a family member or close friend) even just for short periods of time (15-30 minutes) to practice separating.  Increase the time intervals as your baby adjusts to separating.  Older kids?  Leave your child with a very familiar person for 15 minutes only (while you leave the room to fold laundry or shower).  Provide praise and process the event with your child upon your return (“you did a great job playing with Grandma while I was upstairs!  What did you play that was fun?”  Repeat often and gradually increase the time.

2. Get to know caregivers: When introducing a new nanny/babysitter, take a slow approach.  Have the babysitter come to play a few times while you are present so that the kids can get to know her.  Plan fun activities to make it exciting.  Have your babysitter arrive 30 minutes prior to the time that you need to leave so that your child has time to transition and feel comfortable. Help your child engage in an activity with the babysitter before leaving. When Riley has moments of anxiety, a cooking project always shifts her focus and helps her feel comfortable with my departure.

3. Goodbye routine: Develop a short, but predictable goodbye routine. Resist the urge to sneak out when your child’s back is turned.  You want your kids to trust you, not fear that you will leave when they’re not looking.  When Riley and I part ways at preschool or just for a couple of hours during the day we always do the following:  Hug, kiss, high five, and “I love you”. Sometimes a small routine makes a big difference.

4. Stay positive: Now is the time to go overboard on how much you love your new babysitter/daycare/preschool.  When you are calm, your children sense that everything will be ok. When you respond to their anxiety with your own anxiety, they really start to wonder about their safety.  Make a positive statement (“I just know you will have so much fun playing Legos with your babysitter today”).

5. No sneak backs: If you know your child struggles with separation anxiety, you have to plan ahead.  Make sure you have everything you need when you leave the house.  Do not sneak back in to get something or to check on your child. Chances are, there were a few tears.  Allow your child the chance to regroup and move on by staying out of the way.  Repeated sightings as you gather your belongings will only upset your child all over again.

6. Gradual transition: As you get your children used to a new babysitter/nanny, take a slow approach.  Leave for an hour on the first day, and then increase the time intervals as they get used to the new situation.  This is especially important with older toddlers who haven’t spent much time away from you.  They need to know that you will come back, and that they can have fun with someone new.

7. Transitional objects: Between his car collection and his giraffe lovies, Liam is the king of the transitional object.  Some kids attach to specific objects that they cart around day after day, some need a little help finding a toy that helps them feel safe.  A transitional object is something that your child can hold or look at (a stuffed animal, blanket, picture of you) when he is feeling lonely. This can be especially helpful when your child is being left at a daycare or another out of home caregiver.

8. Provide jobs: Older toddlers and preschoolers respond really well to having a specific job.  It makes them feel as if they have some control over the situation.  Even something as simple as having your child close and lock the door behind you can make a difference.  Put your child in charge of picking and putting out snacks or setting up an arts and crafts activity.

9. Normalize feelings: Let your child know that it’s ok to feel nervous.  It’s perfectly normal to feel a little worried when being left with another caregiver.  Resist the urge to say, “be a big girl”.  Instead say something like, “I know that you feel nervous.  Remember when you felt nervous last time but you felt much better after painting with your babysitter?”  Reminding your child of another time that she was successful will help reduce her anxiety.

10. Provide a timeline: Tell your child where you are going.  Having some specific information will help your child feel a sense of control.  Give a timeframe that your child can understand.  If your child knows that you will be home after snack or before dinner, he can understand how that fits into his day (statements like “a couple of hours” are meaningless, try to fit it into their schedules).


Separation anxiety is difficult for both parents and children, but with a gradual transition it can be decreased.  Take your time.  The more time you give your child to adjust to a new childcare situation, the easier the transition will be.

How do you help your child cope with separation anxiety?



About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)