Module 8

Separation Anxiety and Child Development


Divorce and separation can be a confusing experience for children as well as their parents. Children whose parents are divorcing or separating may go through a period of deep separation anxiety, where they cannot bear to part with one or both parents. Understanding what children are going through can help a parent guide them though the transition and minimize the effects of separation anxiety. 

Although separation anxiety usually peaks in babies at around 18 months, the stress of a divorce or break up can cause separation anxiety to reoccur in children of all ages.

Longing for Absent Parent. 

In cases of divorce or separation, children do not just feel separation anxiety when they are apart from their primary caregiver. It is common for children to long for whichever parent they are not with, especially if they feel powerless to contact that parent. This shows that even if a parent is not the primary caregiver, the children still think about and desperately need both parents in their lives.

Keeping Contact

Allowing your children as many ways as possible to stay in contact with the absent parent is a good way to overcome separation anxiety. This includes the standards, such as a phone number or email, as well as other forms of communication. Children often appreciate letters, cards, and hidden notes to remind them of the absent parent. When parents can both attend their child's special events, such as school plays and sporting events, this can go a long way in making sure that he or she feels loved by both parents.

Parental Civility. 

One way to help children overcome separation anxiety is to keep hostility toward the other parent in check. If a child believes that his parents hate each other, every interaction between his parents will cause him more stress and anxiety. Treating the other parent with civility and kindness will show children that their parents are rational, loving adults, allowing them to feel more safe and secure under the care of either.


Child psychologists are nearly unanimous in their belief that children thrive on order and predictable routine. It can be stressful for children to have their routine constantly changing from house to house. Parents should try to maintain as much sameness between their two homes as possible, at least in the initial phases of the separation. Consistency helps lessen separation anxiety.


There are some basic legal guidelines. Children should continue to attend the school they previously attended until the parents agree, or a Court orders otherwise. Consistency is important to children. If a child has not previously been enrolled in school, neither parent should enroll the child in school without the other parent's agreement. The children should generally be enrolled in the school district of the parent with whom the children spend most of their time.


InfantsIts hard to predict what an infant will be like as a toddler. Both parents need to work together to explore what works and doesn't work in raising their child. Both parents should be responsive to the baby, following the baby's signals for feeding, sleeping and contact. The main task for the baby's first year is for the baby to learn that his needs will be met. Trust develops when the baby has close, loving bonds with both parents without feeling pulled from either of them. Because it is important for the child to have a close and loving bond with both parents, it is necessary for parents to work together towards encouraging contact when the baby is young. Parents need to fashion parenting time in the best interests of the baby, even if it is not always convenient for the parents.

The basic principles of attachment and loss clearly show that long separations are not best for young children. Babies have short memories and tend to sense loss when separated too long from a primary figure. When parents are newly separated or divorced, frequent visits with the parent that has spent less time with the child since birth - usually, but not always, the father -- generally works well for a young child.

Frequent contact with the father helps the baby bond to him. So, the more frequently the baby sees the father, the closer the bond. While the time apart from Mom might be very short early on, Dad does not have to be restricted to a short visit just a few times a week. Successful co-parenting demands that both parents work together and adjust timesharing periods to address the needs and temperament of the individual baby. The exact approach needed will vary from baby to baby.

Toddlers. - This is the age when children start to develop their own personalities. Toddlers begin to realize that they are separate beings from their parents. Setting limits and guidelines is necessary in both homes to ensure your child stays safe and learns how to reason rationally. By setting, explaining and holding limits in a constant and consistent manner, you and your co-parent are allowing the child to develop in a healthy manner, promoting ongoing healthy development..

Even without the added hindrance of separation and/or divorce in a relationship, the toddler stage can be a challenging new adventure for parents. Maintaining two households increases the need to confer and discuss with the other parent about how this young, but independent child is to be raised in a consistent manner. The key is to work together to refrain from setting unrealistic goals that will set both the parents and the child up for constant failure and frustration.

Preschoolers (Ages Three to Five). - Children at this age are beginning to know and explore the world around them. Preschoolers, like infants and toddlers, tend to thrive on routine and consistency in their surroundings. During this stage, they are also learning new words and ideas and their level of thinking is becoming complex. Even though preschoolers don't understand the whole concept of their parents' break up, nor do they want to see their parents separate, a child this age may sometimes feel as though they are responsible for the divorce or separation. The child needs to be reminded that he is not being punished and is in no way responsible for what is happening between the parents. If at all possible, the parents need to try and adjust to the divorce or separation in a positive way, so that the child will do the same, . It's important that the parents reassure a preschooler with physical and verbal affection and be readily available to talk with the child about his or her concerns.

Because children of this age are beginning to communicate more effectively, this stage in the child's life may be a good time for co-parents to evaluate whether the current timesharing arrangement is working well for the child or if it is causing undue stress. Adjustments on the time spent in each parent's home may need to be made at this stage depending on feedback from the child. Often at this stage, a child may return from the other parent's home upset, crying or regressive. This may not necessarily be a sign of trouble at the other household. The child may be experiencing difficulty switching from one parent and household to another. If the anxiety persists for more than a day and occurs regularly after visits, both parents should discuss if the visits are too long or too stressful for the child and make some adjustments. The opposite may be discussed if the return from a visit goes consistently well as it may be time to increase the role of the other parent by extending the time spent with that parent.

For children that do not do well upon returning from a visit, as a strategy, parents may incorporate an activity that begins before the child leaves for the visit and continues when the child returns. This strategic approach will give the child something to look forward to upon returning and will ease the transition by occupying the child's time and attention. And, the transition time of dropping a child off should never be used by the parents to confront each other, argue or try to resolve issues. This behavior, no doubt, will attach a negative feeling to the transition that will make future transitions more stressful for the child.

Six- to Eight-Year-Olds. - Children at this age usually handle fairly well the back and forth between parents homes on a regular schedule. Nonetheless, parents should always try to minimize the disruption to the child's life in as many ways as possible. The fear can persist that one parent may be abandoning them. This type of concern is considered normal for children of this age and can be compared to the possible fear of a parent's death. Parents can often settle or even alleviate these exaggerated fears by simply communicating with the child about the instabilities and feelings they may be experiencing because of the parent's break up.

Children of this age should not have a problem with overnights at two different homes and many enjoy spending time at the home of either parent. This parenting schedule may require each parent to transport the child to school on certain days. Both parents should make a concerted effort to maintain the child's contact with friends, peers and involvement in activities.

Nine- to Twelve-Year-Olds. - During this stage of development just prior to the teen years, most children have developed their own self-concept and are more aware of and, it seems at times, totally consumed with how they are viewed by peers. It may seem that they spend the majority of their time and effort learning how to socialize and "fit in" with their friends as opposed to being concerned at all with which parent will be picking them up or dropping them off for school. This stage of development is usually a very active time for children. They tend to engage in many extracurricular activities and are eager to explore new hobbies and ways to spend their time. To family members, it may seem that many children of this age place a high value only on the peer group. Research substantiates, however, that they still look primarily to parents for support and guidance at this age. While a child a 9 = 12 year old usually has no problem in making parents aware of their desires, effective co-parents must remember to consider the child's needs and best interests first when making decisions about how the child is allowed to spend his or her time. The secret to successful co-parenting is harmonious communication - both with the child and the other parent.

Teens. - The roller-coaster adolescent years can seem overwhelming to any teen, and particularly to adolescents dealing with their parents' divorce or separation. That sweet child you know and love may seem to have transformed into someone else entirely. Someone who may suddenly be surly or rebellious. Even if your teen is accustomed to your specific arrangement - bouncing between Mom and Dad, having only one custodial parent, or dealing with stepsisters and stepbrothers - expect new challenges to emerge during the teen years. Parents often worry about issues magnified by divorce or separation, such as lack of a mother figure or father figure within the household; adolescent resentment and anger; or the teen's negative response to a new stepfather or stepmother. If you're facing these challenges, you can continue to build a healthy household by establishing and maintaining good communication with your teen.

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