Surviving Separation Anxiety

Surviving Separation AnxietySeparation anxiety is a normal part of infancy, toddlerhood and preschool years; however that doesn’t make it any less torturous for everyone involved. Surviving separation anxiety takes a few tried and true techniques and coping skills.

Separation anxiety usually rears its head at around 9 months when your baby becomes aware of object permanence. That is, she realizes that you still exist even when you are not present. And if you exist without being with her, she’s upset. Separation anxiety can escalate throughout toddlerhood and continue into the preschool years as well. For the worst cases, spending four or five years dealing with unpleasant good-byes can be stressful. But for most, the brunt of separation anxiety subsides by the time a child enters elementary school.

Your child’s extreme reaction to your departure is truly a sign of a meaningful and deep connection – one that your child is not ready to sever physically for even a moment. And the bond can be even stronger for breastfed babies. Remember that when you question yourself about your exit strategies or whether or not you should ever leave your child again. Because the cries, screams and full-on tantrums are enough to make any parent want to cave.

But the experts say, never cave. Standing firm is the key to surviving separation anxiety. Your child will eventually realize that you’re going to leave no matter what she does, and sometimes that relieves immediate anxiety and reduces separation anxiety overall. If anything, you can at least feel OK about proceeding with your plans – whether that’s leaving for work, going to a PTA meeting or having a much-needed night-off from parenting duty. You are not ruining your child by leaving, you are setting appropriate boundaries.

Try these tips for surviving separation anxiety in the early years:

  • Leave after a feeding or nap so your baby will not be dealing with intense emotions while tired or hungry.
  • Develop a consistent routine for your departure and try to avoid any unexpected elements that may throw your baby into a tizzy. Little ones do better when they know and understand what to expect.
  • Create a meaningful and attentive but short good-bye routine such as a hug, kiss, wave and reminder that mommy always comes back.
  • Practice separation before you do it for an extended period of time or start a new routine. For example, if you are returning to work when your baby is a year old, start by leaving her with caregivers for a few hours at a time several months in advance.
  • If you don’t leave your baby often or if you are leaving for a longer period than usual, talk to your child about what is going to happen well before you leave. Build anticipation and excitement for the fun your child is going to have while you are away.
  • Whenever possible stick to a few well-liked childcare providers such as a regular babysitter or grandparents. Always being looked after by new people can be unnerving to children.
  • Encourage childcare providers to stick with your routine and have familiar objects around if your baby is not staying in your home.
  • For older children, explain when you will return in their own terms such as before lunchtime or after 2 sleeps.
  • Always say goodbye to your child. Sneaking out may make you feel better but it creates a lack of trust and may exacerbate future separation anxiety.

Sources: Healthy Children, Help Guide and Parents