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What If the Kid I'm Babysitting Cries When His Parents Leave?

I took a babysitting course and I'll be babysitting my little cousin. But I'm afraid he will be sad and start screaming as soon as his parents walk out the door. What should I do if this happens?
- Rosario*

Young kids can get something called separation anxiety when a parent leaves. This usually doesn't happen until a child is at least 6 months old and it can last until the child is around 2 years old. Separation anxiety happens because kids worry that a parent who is leaving might not come back.

Separation anxiety is a normal stage in a child's learning and development. It shows the child is advancing enough to grasp that mom or dad has gone away. But since little kids don't have a good concept of time, they don't understand if or when mommy or daddy will come back.

A child's worry at this stage is all about the person who is leaving, not the person who will be looking after them. So it's not a reflection on your skills as a babysitter. Still, it can be upsetting for a new babysitter to have a child start crying right away. The good news is, separation anxiety usually passes after a few minutes. Once you've been babysitting for a while, you will get used to it.

Here's what to do: If your cousin cries, soothe him for a minute after his parents leave. Then, even if he's still crying, try to distract him with an activity, toy, songs, games, or anything else that's fun. You may have to keep trying until something just clicks with the child.

Try not to mention mommy or daddy to your cousin, but do answer any questions about his parents in a simple and straightforward way. So if he asks, you might say: "Daddy [or Mommy] is going to be back as soon as he [she] is done running errands. Let's play with some toys!"

Of course, kids might not cry at all when their parents leave, especially if they're with someone who's been babysitting them regularly. It all depends on the age of the child and what kind of mood he or she is in at the time. A kid who is tired or hungry may be more likely to cry than a child who isn't.

Reviewed by: Kate M. Cronan, MD
Date reviewed: February 2013

*Names have been changed to protect user privacy.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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