Separation Anxiety: 8 Tips to Deal With It

30 May 2019

By Eliana Beeson

Raising children is a high-stakes responsibility. In this age of social media and easy access to information about anything and everything, parents are easily overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. As a sleep consultant, I see this all the time from parents whose babies aren’t sleeping well.

One of the other major contributors to the, “I must be doing something wrong,” sensation is separation anxiety; that challenging part of a child’s life when they start to completely go crazy whenever Mum is not around.

The thought process, it would appear is one of…

  1. Mummy is not in the room.
  2. Therefore, Mummy is somewhere else.
  3. I would prefer to be there with her.
  4. Make that happen, or mark my words, I shall raise the most unimaginable of ruckuses. And those ruckuses leave us, as parents, to wonder, “Am I doing something wrong?”

After all, a well-adjusted child should probably feel reasonably safe when they are separated from their parents for a little while, shouldn’t they? I mean, my colleague Claire says her baby is perfectly content being left with her nanny, even overnight. And that one mum in your Facebook group said that her baby will happily play by herself for hours at a time, and actually takes her toys to her room occasionally in order to get a little ‘me’ time.

Two things to keep in mind.

First, never compare yourself, or your child, to the mothers and babies described in the parenting groups on social media. Much like everything else on Facebook and Instagram, these experiences are almost always conveyed through the rosiest of lenses.

And second, separation anxiety is completely normal, expected, and a sign of a healthy attachment between parent and child.

So what is it, exactly?

Separation anxiety typically starts to occur around 6-8 months of age, when a baby hits a very important cognitive milestone known as ‘object permanence”, which is defined as, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed.”

In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind.

So as your baby begins to grasp this concept, they realise that if you, their favourite person in the whole world, are not there, you are elsewhere. And, hey, wait a minute. If that’s the case, then you might not be coming back.

It’s kind of fascinating when you think about it, but it’s also a little heartbreaking. This realisation, for a baby, is obviously cause for full-blown panic. The thought of a parent leaving and not returning causes anxiety in most grown-ups, if you think about it, so you can hardly expect an infant to take it with great decorum.

But, as many of us know, it also means that leaving them with a babysitter or dropping them off at nursery can be an absolute horror show.

As parents, what we really want to know, or at least what I really wanted to know when it happened with my daughter, was, “How do I prevent it?”

Well, the truth is, you probably wouldn’t want to if you could. I mean, really, wouldn’t you be just a little devastated if you left your child with a stranger and they were just completely OK with it? “Bye Mummy! See you at dinner!”

But we obviously want to find a balance, and if you are struggling with a child who is pitching an absolute fit every time you try to run an errand or go to the bathroom, I have some suggestions to take the edge off until this phase runs its course.

1) Lead by example

Your little one follows your cues, so if you are not willing to let her out of your sight, she probably, albeit unconsciously, feels like she is not safe if you are not in the room. So designate a room where they can explore a little and play without your direct supervision. It’s a small adjustment, but it has a tremendous effect.

2) Don’t avoid it

Learning about separation and reunion is an important milestone, so taking the path of least resistance and staying with your child 24/7 until they are in middle school wouldn’t probably help. Let them know that it’s okay for them to get upset when you leave and reassure them that you will always come back. If there are some tears around it, that’s alright. This is an important concept that they need to get on board with.

3) Start slow

Once your little one has started to demonstrate the understanding that they will be spending some time with someone besides you or your partner, make it a short outing. It’s better to take it step by step and don’t plan on dinner and a movie or an overnighter for the first few attempts.

4) Start with someone familiar

Kids typically do a little better being left with a grandparent or family friend who they have already spent some time with, and who they have grown to trust a little, so call in a favour, put some wine in the fridge, and plan to spend at least an hour away from the house for the first few attempts.

5) Stick around for a while

After your babysitter, parent, friend, or whoever is watching your little one arrives, plan to hang around for a half hour or so. Seeing that this is someone you are familiar with will go a long way in reassuring your child that they’re “good people” and worthy of their trust.

6) Face the music

Many of us have, at least once, attempted to distract our toddlers and then sneak out the door without saying goodbye. After all, it’s the goodbye that provokes the reaction, right? But even if it provokes some tears, it’s important for your child to understand that you are going to leave sometimes, and that you will be back when you say you will.

7) Establish a routine

Much like bedtime, a solid, predictable goodbye routine helps your little one recognise and accept the situation. A set number of kisses and hugs, a memorable key phrase, and a clear indication of when you will be back should be just the right balance of short and reassuring.

8) Speak in terms they can understand

Instead of telling them how long you will be gone, tell them when you will be back in regards to their schedule. After nap time, before bed, after dinner, before bath time, and so on.

It’s not easy to prevent your child from getting a little bit upset when you leave, (and as I said before, thank the stars for that, because if they didn’t, you would probably be worried for other reasons!) but you can definitely keep the fuss to a minimum.

Now, I should add here that these techniques are suggested for those children who are dealing with ordinary, everyday separation anxiety. There is also a condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder which is more serious and for which a trip to your GP is needed if you suspect your little one might be afflicted with it.

But for run-of-the-mill fit-pitching when you try to leave the house for an hour or two, these tips should go a long way towards helping with the problem. Be consistent, supportive, assertive, and calm. Before long, your child will understand the concept of you leaving and coming back.

In fact, this concept that will also come in handy when you start to leave them alone in high school…

“I’m leaving for the night, but rest assured, I’m coming back. So you just remember that before you invite your rowdy friends over ;).”

Published on 30 May 2019


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