Separation anxiety and stranger anxiety occur when your child develops the mental ability to remember objects and people when they are no longer present, a skill called object permanence. Once your child has this skill he or she will probably search for his favorite toy when it has been put away or drops out of sight and cry whenever you are not in sight, because his memory is still incomplete and he has no sense of time, he believes that once you leave, you are gone forever. Stranger anxiety tends to develop in association with separation anxiety as the child gets better at telling the difference between familiar and unfamiliar faces and becomes more fearful of faces he doesn't know.
Most children exhibit some degree of separation anxiety around 6 to 8 months of age that lasts for 2 to 4 months; however, the age of the child and duration of the anxiety may vary greatly. Many children go through a second phase of separation anxiety around 18 months of age that eases as communication skills improve, and some children develop severe separation anxiety at night even when mom and dad are in the next room. A child's temperament plays a big role in the degree and duration of separation anxiety, so a child who adapts to new changes easily will probably have less anxiety than a child who has a difficult time with change.
Symptoms of normal separation anxiety include increasing unease and crying when separated from you or when you show signs of leaving. He or she may also exhibit whining, clinginess or insistence on physical contact with you, shyness, unusual silence, and an unwillingness to interact with others, even if they are familiar.
What to Do?
The root cause of separation anxiety is your child's inability to understand that you will return at some point after you leave, so teaching your child this concept will help him get over separation anxiety more quickly. Games such as peek-a-boo and "where's the baby?" are helpful in demonstrating this idea. To play "where's the baby," cover your baby's head with a small blanket or towel and ask "where's the baby?" and then pull the cloth off your baby's head and say "There you are!" You can also put the blanket over your head and let him pull it off you. You can also play a simplified version of hide-and-seek by partially hiding yourself behind a piece of furniture and then calling to your baby to come find you.
You can also practice trial separations with your baby. Tell him that you will be going into another room and that you'll be back soon. Repeat the assurances as you leave and talk to him from the other room to demonstrate that you still exist, even though he cannot see you. After a few moments, come back in the room. Gradually increase the length of these practice separations and he will eventually learn that it's okay if you are gone for a little while and that you'll always return.
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