5 Ways to Help Your Child Deal with Separation Anxiety
The dreaded separation anxiety! The first time it happens, it takes you by surprise. Your baby that had no issue being held by anyone starts to care who’s holding them. They start to notice that you left the room and they will let you know about it. So what is happening to your little angel and why?
What’s happening is that they are growing up. Their brain is developing and beginning to be more tuned to their surroundings. And so they begin to experience a thing called separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety in young children is not a disorder but a normal stage of development. And just because your child experiences separation anxiety, it is by no means an indicator of them being prone to it as adults. It typically starts happening closer to 9 months but can certainly develop as early as 4 months. It’s all tied to object permanence.
Object permanence means that the child knows that an object exists even if it’s out of sight. That’s why games like “peek-a-boo” or hiding a toy behind your back brings the baby so much delight. And this amazing development also creates separation anxiety because the baby now knows that mom is not gone forever if she’s out of sight. So the baby cries in order to encourage mom to come back.
While it’s very disturbing to hear your baby cry and tempting to come back and never ever leave them, it’s not a good solution. It’s important to remember that while baby may be in short distress while the parent is leaving, the distress passes and doesn’t leave any lasting psychological damage.
It’s important to remember that while most separation anxiety begins in the first year of life, it often stretches well into toddlerhood. I’m sure anyone who has worked with toddlers in an educational or daycare setting knows how stressful and tearful the first week is. But as time goes on and the child gets used to their new caregivers, they begin to trust them and separation from parents becomes easier.
In its simplest form, separation anxiety stems from a fear of being left alone and being unable to fend for ourselves. Make sure you are empathetic towards your child’s feelings but are not indulging them. In fact, the more you indulge them, the worse the anxiety is going to get. And that’s not a good situation for anyone.
Here are a few tips to minimize separation anxiety for your baby or toddler:
- Prepare for the transition. For a young baby make sure you narrate what you are doing in a calm voice. Something like “Mommy is going to go to the store for a short time and then she’ll be back” is sufficient. Then get all your stuff ready before you say your final good bye. For a toddler, narrating and preparing them for a transition may or may not be a good approach. For some kids, hearing that you are going to leave, will send them into panic prematurely and you won’t be able to get ready in peace. (I know that my son is one of those kids, so I don’t ever give him warnings). So in those situations, just calmly get everything ready for yourself and act like nothing different is happening. For a child who likes being prepared, make sure to talk to them and tell them that you’re leaving and that you will be back.
- Make the transition as short and uneventful as possible. First, you have to mentally prepare yourself for the fact that there will be tears and you need to be OK with that. Now that you are prepared, lean down, give a quick hug and kiss and say bye. Your child will cry, scream, try to grab on to you but you just need to ignore that and leave. Make sure that the caregiver who is staying with your child has all the necessary instructions for your absence before you leave. This will help shorten the difficult transition and eliminate having to talk over a screaming child.
- Distract. Sometimes, no matter how short and uneventful you try to make your departure, your child is still going to throw a giant tantrum. In such cases, it might be easier to have the caregiver who is staying with them take the child in a different room and engage them in play while you leave. When the child is the one that left the room first, your absence might not truly register with them and the separation will go much smoother. As long as your unannounced departure doesn’t make your child more anxious, there is no harm in doing this until your child is fine staying with caregiver.
- Make sure the caregiver who stays with them does not contribute to the separation anxiety. By that I mean that the caregiver does not harp on the child’s emotional response. The caregiver needs to be able to comfort the child and refocus them on a fun activity. Maybe there is a special toy or game that the child only plays with when this caregiver is present. Anything that builds trust, comfort level and is fun for the child should be employed by the caregiver.
- Don’t linger or bring attention to how distressing the transition was. Let’s be honest, these transitions are not only hard on the child but can also be difficult on the parent. The first time we leave our baby with a babysitter or our toddler at school is anxiety provoking to us parents as well. We can most certainly screw up and make separation anxiety worse by lingering too long and comforting the child too much. Just give a quick kiss and hug and trust your caregiver. They will take care of it. Most likely within a few minutes of you leaving your child will calm down and be happy.
I hope this helps you deal with separation anxiety in a way that makes life easier for everyone. Share any other tips and tricks that helped your child with separation anxiety in the comments section.
Quote of the Day
I felt abandoned – watching my mum leave me with strangers. I’ll never forget that feeling. Then I had very happy years at school. – Claire Sweeney
Mental Health Tip of the Day
In order to greatly reduce your anxiety about leaving your child, make sure you are leaving them with a caregiver you trust. We all have heard and read many horror stories that make us never want to leave our children but that is not healthy. So make sure you have done your due diligence in order to have peace of mind.