Separation Anxiety and Your Child
Does your child cry, scream, or cling to you when you try to leave? Whether you’re simply walking into another room or leaving them with a sitter. One day your child does fine with separating from you and the next it seems he’s in full blown separation anxiety!
As heart wrenching as it can be, it’s normal and it’s a healthy part of your child’s development. It can start as early as 6 months and you may see it emerge again between 8 to 10 months and then again between 18 to 24 months. But the truth is, it can happen at any time during the first few years of life.
Most kids go through separation anxiety, and while it can be stressful, it’s actually a sign that your baby understands object permanence (the idea that someone continues to exist even when they are out of sight). And while you may KNOW that it won’t last forever, that doesn’t necessarily make it any less difficult.
Tips to Ease Separation Anxiety
Here are some tips to ease separation anxiety without reacting to your child in a way that prolongs it or makes it worse.
Tip #1: Don’t allow their crying or clinging to stop you from leaving.
Reassure them that you will be back to get them or you will be back in a moment if you’re simply walking out of the room. Then give them kisses and hugs and ACTUALLY leave. Don’t keep coming back or delaying your exit. This just draws things out and prolongs the whole process, making the separation anxiety worse. Keeping the goodbye brief when it’s time to leave will make things easier.
Tip #2: Communicate.
If your child is 12 months or older, talk to them about where you’re going (or who’s coming to care for them), what they’re going to do while you’re gone, and what you’re going to do. Talk to them about leaving and coming back. You can say something like, “Mommy will be back when your nap is over.” This helps to mentally prepare them for this transition and helps to ease the separation anxiety that they may already be feeling.
Tip #3: Make sure your energy is positive and calm.
If you’re feeling anxious, that energy will transfer to your child. This is so important and many parents often overlook it. Your confident, calm energy helps your child to feel safe and secure.
Tip #4: Don’t sneak out.
While this is SOOO tempting, don’t do it. It’s better for you to say goodbye and for them to see you leave than for them to realize that you’re gone and didn’t say goodbye.
Tip #5: Develop a short ritual before leaving.
Something that you only do during times of separation. This can become a safety net of comfort for your child once it becomes familiar. It could be something like a hug and a kiss or a high five and then a phrase or phrases that you only use during this routine. Make something up that fits your family, then do it each time you leave. Small rituals like this can make a child feel connected to you before you leave and pretty soon it will become a fun part of your goodbye.
Tip #6: Don’t brush off their anxiety.
It’s good to show compassion and still hold the boundary of separating. You could say something like, “I know it’s hard to be apart, but before you know it, mommy will be back again to see you, and while mommy is gone you get to play with…” When you do this, you’re validating their feelings while still letting them know that you ARE leaving.
Tip #7: Build in a time of transition.
If you have a child struggling with separation anxiety, ideally you don’t want to just drop your child off and leave quickly if you can help it. If you’re bringing in a sitter, then have her come 20 to 30 minutes early to help your child get acclimated before you leave. This is especially important if the caregiver is someone new. If possible, schedule a time beforehand where the new sitter can come and meet your child and have some playtime with you in the house. This can be super helpful with kiddos 12 months or older.
Tip #8: Use a transitional object.
An object that your child is attached to can be very helpful for times of separation. If your child has a lovey that they use in the crib, I would suggest having two. One that stays in the crib and one that can go with him when he needs it. This keeps the one in the crib clean!
Tip #9: Ease separation anxiety in the home.
If you find that you can’t walk out of the room without your baby or toddler melting down, I know your natural reaction will be to NOT leave, or you’ll want to pick up your child to bring them with you. I would highly recommend that you NOT do this! It will only make the separation anxiety worse and it will teach them that the meltdown worked and they will continue to do it. You can simply say, “Mommy will be right back,” and then continue to walk out. The goal is to lessen the anxiety, which means your kiddo needs to learn that you leave the room AND you come back.
I have mama’s that can’t even go to the bathroom alone, and while you may say that’s totally “normal”, I would say it’s totally unnecessary. Once you start it, at some point you’re going to have to stop it. If your child lays outside the door and cries, trust me he won’t do it forever. You can just say, “Mommy is going potty and mommy wants privacy to go potty.” That’s all the explanation that’s needed!
Tip #10: Be proactive in encouraging alone time for your child.
This can help to ease separation anxiety because your child will be comfortable being separated from you. You can practice this in his crib when he wakes from a nap (don’t immediately go in and scoop him up) – let him wake up naturally. You can also start by doing playpen time. Playpen time is a GREAT way to create security and independence. Your child will become accustomed to playing by himself in a safe place while you come and go in and out of the room or are simply within earshot of him playing. This can also give you a much needed break to get a few things done around the house while your baby or toddler is safe and playing independently. If you start this BEFORE your child is mobile, it will make life SOOO much easier once your child can crawl or walk. Trust me on this!
Separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development, and while it’s certainly not the most pleasant stage, it is a sign that your child is securely connected to you and is progressing developmentally! Continue to offer your support and compassion, and before you know it, your child will begin to accept your coming and going as a normal part of day-to-day life. He will know that you are coming back and that he can actually have fun while you are gone.
If you have a child that is really struggling or if the separation anxiety is affecting his sleep routines, reach out to me for more help. This is definitely a stage that can be made easier with some help and guidance.