baby ducklings following mother duck

About separation anxiety and clingy behaviour

Separation anxiety is the distress that a child feels when their parent or carer leaves them alone or in the care of someone else. It is a normal developmental stage starting around 9 months old and continuing to around age 4, although some children continue to experience periods of separation anxiety well beyond this age.

Most parents and carers deal with separation anxiety with little or no problem. Some signs of separation anxiety are crying, calling for their parent or carer, running after them and clinging onto them.

However, some children can become so distressed that they will scream, throw tantrums and even vomit. Such severe or prolonged distress can make it very difficult for parents and carers to leave the child. This can lead to the parent or carer choosing not to send the child to nursery, school or social events in order to avoid the distress.

Older children may experience separation anxiety in response to events such as bullying, bereavement, a change of school or family circumstances. The young person may show distress or fear when they go to school or they may insist that they are with their parent at all times, sometimes even overnight.

Things to think about

  • Is this the continuation of normal clingy behaviour or is this a sudden change in behaviour? 
  • Have there been any significant life changes or stresses affecting the child? 
  • How are the parents or carers reacting to the child's distress?
  • Is there something that could be making them anxious at nursery or school?
  • Is the child confident and socially integrated with strong friendships and alliances?
  • Could the child be subject to teasing or perceived bullying?
  • Does the child feel they are different from their peers in their identity, for example due to ethnic, cultural or religious group, interests, additional support needs, etc?
  • Is there anything worrying the child?
  • Does the child have an obvious or hidden disability? 
  • Is the child suffering from a physical illness? 

Think about your response

It is important to consider your own emotional response to the situation. If you are finding yourself becoming very distressed, anxious, angry or protective towards the child then it is important to consider why. These feelings may impact on your ability to respond helpfully. Although difficult, it is important to separate your own feelings and thoughts from the situation you are dealing with.

What you can do

  • Talk to the parent or carer to find out if this is the continuation of normal clingy behaviours, or a new response to separation. If it's a continuation, it may be helpful to look at how the parents are reacting to the child's distress. If it's a new response, it's important to think about whether there is anything that may be causing the child worry or concern. 
  • Discuss with the parent or carer their own response to the child's anxiety and distress. Remind them that the child's distress might be worse if they show distress themselves, are too over-protective, or too harsh.
  • Encourage the parent or carer to be confident and reassuring. However, be aware that reassurance can sometimes become a problem if the child becomes too dependent on it. The child needs to feel confident that they can handle the separation without the constant need for reassurance.
  • When the parent or carer is leaving:
    • encourage them to smile during the separation, as this can mask their own distress. 
    • encourage them not to return to the child, but to calmly and confidently leave.
    • discourage them from leaving without telling the child they are going. 
  • Try to keep separations fairly short but allow the child or young person to adjust to the fact they are leaving their parent or carer, and try to distract the child with other activities. 
  • Encourage the parent or carer to plan brief periods away from the child, gradually extending the time as the child becomes more settled. For example, leaving them more often with grandparents or a neighbour.
  • For a child of school age, it could be helpful to get support from their friends, by arranging for them to call on the child or young person and go to school together.
  • Think about using stories, drawings and other creative approaches, appropriate to the child’s age, to help them explain how they are feeling when they leave their parent or carer.
  • Ask the child if there is anything worrying them, e.g. teasing, bullying, physical illness.
  • Find out if there have been any significant life changes or stresses affecting the child, for example: bereavement, parental separation, a change of school or house move?
  • Find out if there is something that could be making them anxious at nursery or school, for example:
    • how they feel about their learning or an activity
    • if they are finding something difficult
    • how their relationships are with adults in school
    • how they feel about themselves and their peer group.

This video gives tips to help with separation anxiety: