“Separation anxiety can happen almost overnight, which makes it shocking to parents,” says Sara Abbot – associate director of the Family Resource Counseling Center in Los Angeles.
What’s more, it’s often not just a one-time, babyhood phase for many kids. The tears and fears related to being apart from Mom or Dad can resurface in the toddler and preschool years, posing new challenges for parents and warranting different solutions.
As disheartening as that may sound, it can be very helpful to remember that separation anxiety is completely normal, even healthy. “From the earliest years of life, we should want children to encounter ordinary adversity because it’s practice for building resilience,” says Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., coauthor of I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy! Why You Shouldn’t Say It….
Fortunately, there’s plenty you can do to minimize your child’s angst, as well as your own, along the way.
Though the timing can vary from child to child, separation anxiety typically first hits around 8 months, when babies suddenly grasp that their parents exist apart from them, says Abbot. “Literally, it’s like, boom! They understand you can leave.” They don’t, however, understand that you’re coming back. This anxiety may last several weeks, or even a few months, until your child realizes that you’re not, in fact, abandoning him for life—you’re just going to the bathroom.
How to Survive Separation Anxiety
Start early – By 6 months, introduce your baby to other regular caregivers, such as relatives or a babysitter. “Your child needs practice being away from you, hopefully well before preschool,” says Alex Barzvi, Ph.D., clinical director of the New York University Child Study Center’s Institute for Anxiety and Mood Disorders. “You want someone else to hold and talk to your kid a little differently.” These experiences may minimize her anxiety later on when you’re not around.
Keep your goodbye short – A quick “Bye, Tola, see you this afternoon!” is ideal. “Prolonging the departure gives your child the idea that there’s something to be afraid of,” Barzvi says. But here’s the really tough part: Try not to let the sobbing lure you back. Reappearing after you’ve left only gives your child incentive to cry harder and longer next time.
Match your body language to your words – “Your child can sense your confidence as you walk out the door,” Cooper says. Flash a smile, give a cheerful wave. You’ll be faking it, of course, but she won’t know that yet. She’ll just know that you feel good about who she’s with—and she can, too.
Develop a goodbye ritual – For example, whenever you have to leave your toddler at daycare, give her two kisses and a high five. ‘The ritual creates order around the departure for both parent and child, ‘says Abbot. And that provides security.
Let your child take something she loves from home, like a teddy bear, pillow or blanket. These objects will help your child feel safer, and you can gradually phase them out as she feels more settled in the new place.
Give your child a small job – When Ilene Siringo’s 23-month-old son, Luca, hit a particularly clingy phase, she started asking him to “shut the door for Mommy” when she left for work. This little responsibility made the transition a lot easier. “He likes to help, and he gets to have control of the door,” says Siringo, an optometrist in New York City. This strategy can also work with kids who get anxious when you have to leave the room. For instance, if you need to get the laundry, give your child a sweater to “fold” until you get back.
Tell your child’s child care centre, preschool or school about his separation anxiety, and let them know about anything you’re doing to help your child. This way, other people in your child’s environment can give him consistent support.
Provide an eta – “A child this age doesn’t understand ‘three hours,’ but you can say, ‘I’ll be back after snack time,’ ” Abbot advises. And do your best to return when promised. It’s tempting to think he won’t know the difference if you’re significantly late, but at some point he will—and you can’t predict when. If you’re heading out for a late night, tell him you’ll see him in the morning.
Avoid sneaking off – Tell your child when you’re leaving and when you’ll be back. This is helpful even with babies. Sneaking out without saying goodbye can make things worse. Your child might feel confused or upset when he realises you’re not around and might be harder to settle the next time you leave him.
Settle your child in an enjoyable activity before you leave.
No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid criticising or being negative about your child’s difficulty with separation. For example, avoid saying things like ‘She’s such a mummy’s girl’ or ‘Don’t be such a baby’.
Read books or make up stories with your child about separation fears – for example, ‘Once upon a time, there was a little bunny who didn’t want to leave his mummy in the hutch. He was afraid of what he might find outside …’. This might help your child feel he’s not alone in being afraid of separating from his parents.
Make a conscious effort to foster your child’s self-esteem by complimenting her and giving her lots of positive attention.