The thinking about early separation of children from their parents has been somewhat distorted by the specter of separation anxiety. A developmental step that is part of normal development has become a sign that something is wrong – something to worry about. Stranger anxiety appears in infants at around eight months of age as they become aware of the difference between mother and others. They may become upset or withdrawn when approached by a stranger.
This can also become apparent in the two- to three-year-old period as children struggle with the realization that they and mother are separate beings. The behavior that children show when separated from mother is often an expression of anxiety about control over their own impulses. Children at that stage are involved in a struggle between their own wishes and the wishes of their parents. They still need the presence of a parent to reassure themselves about their own behavior.
Programs which are geared to the development of young children understand this. They generally allow for a gradual separation process and/or permit parents to stay longer as needed. As children form relationships with teachers or group leaders, they learn that other adults will also help them and are better able to function in a group setting without a parent or familiar caregiver present.
When children start preschool, the fact that some children have more difficulty with separation than others does not mean that something is wrong. Children vary greatly, and their behavior in this regard is not a reflection on either child or mother. In a recent observation of a group of two-year-olds, it was fascinating to see the individual differences in the arrival of several children.
Since this group already had been in session for a number of months, the children were simply dropped off by their parents. The teachers had spread various play items in a circle on the floor creating an invitation for children to join. The first child to arrive was immediately drawn to the colorful materials and went right to work building something from the available blocks. She appeared comfortable in the situation and responded positively to the teachers’ greetings.
The next child walked up to the circle without hesitation, looked at the scene and then turned around to face the door with her back to the group. Ignoring the invitation of the teachers to join she remained standing in that position, in effect rejecting the others although showing no other sign of upset. After several minutes she turned around, sat down and without a word began to play with the materials.
Still another child arrived who approached the circle without hesitation, appeared to acknowledge the teachers’ greeting and sat down seemingly interested in the various materials available. However, she seemed curled up in the way she sat and her thumb went immediately into her mouth. She used one hand for play while the thumb of her other hand remained in her mouth.
As the group progressed, the children all seemed to relax and become more comfortable. The child who initially seemed most at ease remained distant in her manner from the others, perhaps her own expression of independence. Each of the children handled the first moments of separation in their own way.
The point is that separation is a developmental step, which children can be helped to work through as they are with other developmental steps that may be hard at first. But the fact that something is hard doesn’t make it bad. Children are strengthened when they are helped to take such steps.

— Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.