As infants develop, they experience various emotions, usually in a predictable order. Before 8 months, infants are so new to the world that they have little knowledge of what is ordinary and what may be dangerous, so new situations or experiences seem usual, and not frightening.
In normal development, during this early period the infant becomes familiar with the home environment, and feels comfortable when parents or other known caretakers are present. After this time, lack of familiarity often produces fear because the infant recognizes that something unusual is going on.
From 8 to 14 months, children often become frightened when they meet new people or visit new places. They recognize their parents as familiar and safe. When separated from their parents, particularly when away from home, they feel threatened and unsafe.
Separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage. It helped keep our ancestors alive and helps children learn how to master their environment.
It usually ends when the child is around 2 years old. At this age, toddlers begin to understand that parents may be out of sight now, but will return later. There is also a normal desire to test their independence.
To get over separation anxiety, children must:
- Feel safe in their home environment
- Trust people other than their parents
- Trust that their parents will return
Even after children have successfully mastered this developmental stage, separation anxiety may return during periods of stress. Most children will experience some degree of separation anxiety when in unfamiliar situations, especially when separated from their parents.
When children are in situations (such as hospitals) and are experiencing stress (such as illness or pain), they seek the safety, comfort, and protection of their parents. When parents cannot be with their children in these situations, the children experience distress.
This is why it is important to stay with your child as much as is possible during any medical procedures. Your presence can actually reduce the amount of pain the child experiences, as anxiety of any kind makes pain worse.