Most of us feel best when our families are together. But as our children grow, we tend to spend more time apart for a variety of reasons. Some children adjust easily to this change. Others have more difficulty. It’s understandable to miss the people we love. But what if your child is so focused on missing you that he or she misses out on other things, too?

Strategies can help. But first, let’s consider what worry is like for your child.

Thoughts When most of us worry, we do the, “What ifs?” With worries about separation, the “what ifs” tend to fall into two categories:

  • What if something bad happens to my parent (e.g., because of illness or some kind of disaster)?
  • What if something bad happens to me (e.g., I get lost, sick, or hurt)?

While these events are possible, they aren’t very probable. But they can seem very real when we worry.

Bodily Sensations Worried children may feel a flood of bodily sensations, like tummy aches or headaches. They might feel dizzy or flushed, their hearts might race, and their breathing might be rapid. These sensations are the body’s alarm system going off, and that alarm system can feel very uncomfortable.
Feelings When we worry, we feel afraid. But we can feel other things, too, like anger, sadness, embarrassment, or frustration.
Behaviors For many of us our first instinct is to stay away from what scares us. With separation worries, children try to avoid going places without a parent or caregiver. Sometimes, avoidance can even mean sticking close to home (e.g., in the same room or bed as a parent). If separation is looming, children may protest, cry, or cling to parents. Children may also look for repeated reassurance that everything will be okay, but that reassurance often doesn’t stop the worrying.

Worry can be distressing for children—and for adults, too! Here are some strategies to help everyone feel better.


Teach your child that the uncomfortable feeling he or she is experiencing is called anxiety. Use basic terms for young children, like feeling worried or nervous. Explain that feeling worried is the body’s alarm system going off. We need our alarm system to help keep us safe, but sometimes it goes off when it doesn’t need to, and when we aren’t in any real danger. Let your child know everyone worries sometimes, and there are things that can help when worry happens.


Practice with separation gives children opportunities to see that everything will be okay (assuming they are being left somewhere safe) and helps build confidence that they can cope.

  • Practice separation when your child is at his or her best (i.e., not hungry, tired, or sick).
  • Start with shorter separations before moving on to more challenging situations.
  • Use a consistent separation routine so your child knows exactly what to expect.
  • If you can, try to meet a babysitter or visit a new setting ahead of time so your child knows what to expect. If that isn’t possible, stay a few minutes while your child looks around and settles in.
  • Reminders of home, like a blanket or stuffed animal, may help soothe separations. As your child gets older, something smaller that fits in a pocket may be more appropriate.
  • When it’s time to go, don’t sneak away! This tactic can contribute to your child staying close so you don’t disappear suddenly.
  • Offer a quick, caring, matter of fact good-bye. Tell your child when you will be back and do your best to stick to the plan. Then give your child a hug and kiss and (here comes the hard part)…exit.
  • Even if your child is upset, stay calm so your child can see that you believe nothing harmful is going to happen.
  • Being overly protective or providing repeated reassurance may give your child the impression that there is something to be feared. Be as matter of fact as you can and convey confidence in your child’s ability to cope.
  • Tears are common when separating, so be prepared. They generally stop once parents/caregivers are out of site, so the sooner that happens, the easier it may be for your child.
  • Avoid prolonging your goodbye or returning to see if everything is okay. Both can increase your child’s distress. If you are concerned, arrange a call in 20 minutes to speak with the adult in charge. Speaking with your child may cause further upset, so it’s not necessary for your child to know about the call.
  • Distraction can be a powerful tool. If the person caring for your child suggests an engaging activity as soon as you say goodbye, your child’s attention may shift from separating to having fun.


Certain situations can trigger separation fears. For example, fears sometimes pop up around transitions, like starting kindergarten or moving to a new neighborhood. They can also happen during stressful events, like the birth of a sibling or a divorce. Symptoms can reappear, or seem more intense, after disruptions to regular routines—after a weekend, holiday, or illness that kept your child home from school. Try your best to get your child back into a routine as quickly as possible.


While many children have difficulty with separations, some parents do, too! How do you feel about leaving your child? Do you crumble at the first sign of tears and cancel your plans? Have you rearranged your family’s routine around your child’s preferences not to separate? Some reluctance to leave your child may also be playing a role in your child’s fears. Talk to a trusted friend or professional if you have concerns about your own or your child’s worries about being apart. And be kind to yourself! While separating is an important part of growing up, it can be tough at any age.

by Susan Sweet, PhD

This Article's Author

Susan D. Sweet, PhD, is a clinical child psychologist and mother of two. She has worked in hospital, school, and community-based settings and is passionate about children’s mental health and well-being. Susan hopes worries never overshadow anyone’s dreams.

Dr. Sweet co-authored with Brenda Miles, PhD Jacqueline and the Beanstalk: A Tale of Facing Giant Fears, Princess Penelopea Hates Peas: A Tale of Picky Eating and Avoiding Catastropeas, King Calm: Mindful Gorilla in the City, Cinderstella: A Tale of Planets Not Princes, and Chicken or Egg: Who Comes First?
Brenda Milesby Brenda Miles, PhD

This Article's Author

Brenda S. Miles, PhD, is a pediatric neuropsychologist who has worked in hospital, rehabilitation, and school settings.

She is an author and co-author of several books for children, including The Moment You Were Born: A Story for You and Your Premature Baby, Stickley Sticks to It!: A Frog’s Guide to Getting Things Done, Chicken or Egg: Who Comes First? and Princess Penelopea Hates Peas: A Tale of Picky Eating and Avoiding Catastropeas, all published by Magination Press.

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