Six tips to manage separation anxiety
I’ve had a few clients in that awkward stage of separation anxiety lately. And if it hits out of the blue, it can make all facets of your day a bit tougher. That’s assuming you ever want a toilet break! It can also leave you wondering what is going on; your otherwise happy baby has potentially become a clingy mess…
Separation anxiety can hit anywhere from around 8 months until the preschool years, and can arrive almost overnight. It normally peaks around 18 months and has a tendency to get better from then on in, but sometimes there seems to be no rhyme or reason to it. When it hits, and how it affects your child will depend on their individual development and temperament.
I believe that healthy attachment is the greatest feeling in the world, but honestly, when your child is losing her mind every time you’re out of sight it becomes that much harder to go about your day.
It really is worth having a few strategies up your sleeve to cope, because at some stage we all need to leave our child with someone else, whether it be with Grandma, a babysitter or day care. So here are my top tips for managing separation anxiety in a gentle yet effective way.
Tip 1: Realise it is normal
Separation anxiety is completely normal and a healthy developmental stage. Realising this can help you rationalise it when it gets a bit emotional. Researchers argue that separation anxiety helps your child practice building resilience, the ability to bounce back from difficult times. Letting them experience ordinary adversity in their early years gives them a head start on the tougher life lessons to come (like dealing with a child experiencing separation anxiety for one). And that’s a great point. I certainly believe there are amazing benefits to resilience. It’s something we could all do with more of, even as adults!
Tip 2: Engage in play
Peek a boo is a great game to play, as it shows your baby that even though he can’t see you, it doesn’t mean you stop existing – Look, there she is again!
It can also help to walk away for a few minutes while your child is otherwise engaged in playing with a toy, or blocks or colouring. When they’re distracted it’s a great time to go away for a few minutes (and go to the toilet at last), just return before your baby gets distressed. He will realise you’re gone, but as he’s distracted it takes a little longer for him to cotton on. And as he’s still calm when you return, he’s getting gentle practice in realising you do actually come back.
Separation anxiety can hit as soon as your baby understands that you, the parent, exists as a separate entity. They understand that you can leave, but don’t yet understand that you’re coming back. This is because your baby doesn’t understand object permanence, which is just a fancy way of saying that just because he can’t see you, it doesn’t mean you’ve dropped out of existence never to return. For all your baby knows, you actually do disappear off the planet and you’re not coming back, ever.
In this instance constant reassurance really isn’t going to help. He needs to experience you leaving and returning to get his head around it. The more practice and experience he has, the more your baby will understand that it is OK. Mum goes, but she comes back. If you’re always by your child’s side, the realisation that you do come back can be delayed, and seriously, going to the bathroom by yourself sometimes really is a pleasant thing.
Tip 3: Don’t sneak out
When you’re leaving for a decent amount of time it can be tempting to leave when your child isn’t looking because you don’t want to upset them. However, then trust becomes an issue. It’s important to maintain your child’s trust so they can rely on you and trust that you will come back. A little goodbye ritual can be helpful if they’re old enough, a secret handshake between the two of you, for example, can do wonders.
Tip 4: Keep your goodbye short
Hand in hand with not sneaking out, is not lingering. Prolonging your departure reinforces you child’s belief that there really is something to be afraid of. And yes, your child may cry (OK chances are they will sob and that will tug on your heartstrings), but try not to let that make you go back to them.
Going back to them once you’ve left just gives them reason to cry longer and harder next time.
So yes, your child will cry. The good news is that 5 minutes later she’ll be happy with the baby sitter, or joining in with her friends at day care. Remember that lingering just draws out the pain. And I get it, it’s hard! You’ll likely cry too. I’ve cried at day care drop offs (and even initial school drop offs truth be told). Just don’t let your child see it. This is just another example of when parenting is hard!
Tip 5: Leave with confidence
When you leave, leave with the confidence that everything is OK. Yes, you’ll likely have to fake it initially, but it will help your child realise that you’re comfortable leaving her, and by sensing your confidence she’ll be reassured. Leaving with confidence is much more reassuring than dithering and getting anxious yourself, especially for toddlers who feel more secure in a black and white universe.
Note too, that when separation anxiety hits during toddlerhood you’ll see more tantrums or hysterical crying and screaming. At this stage of life your child already has a strong sense of attachment and they also want more control over their lives – so it’s important to help them deal with this. By toddlerhood, they know you’ll come back, but they’d prefer it if you’d stay. And if crying has gotten you back into the room or house with them in the past they’ll give it their best attempt again. How you deal with this will either see this behaviour blow over, or continue for a long time. I know which one I’d prefer.
Tip 6: Ensure enough Sleep
I’m really passionate about this one (that’s no surprise) because it works. Even in the midst of separation anxiety, if your child is sleeping well, they will have much better coping skills! Everything is so much tougher with little sleep. So you need to make sure they’re getting at least their recommended amount of sleep hours daily.
In conclusion, remember that separation anxiety is a normal developmental stage. It helps build resilience and lets your child make sense of the world. There’s no denying it can be a tough stage for parents to go through, but you do need to leave your child from time to time, and that’s OK. The more experience they have that you go and come back, the easier it will become and the shorter the “stage”. And remember that the more sleep they’re having, the better they (and hence you) will cope! Then you can sleep well knowing you’re doing a great job at this parenting gig!
Have you gone through separation anxiety? What helped you get through?
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