Around their first birthday, children start realizing that they are entities separate from their parents. This realization can be accompanied by the fear of being left alone or abandoned. Without a developed concept of time a child cannot yet comprehend the idea that a parent who is heading out the door has every intention of coming back. It’s easy to see how this could become a distressing experience for a little one. We know this phenomenon as separation anxiety, aka moments in the doorways of houses and preschools, filled with sobs, tears and tantrums, as well as bouts of parental guilt and the oh so familiar feeling of “doing-it-all-wrong.”
In moments like these it is important to remember that separation anxiety is a normal part of childhood development. It is a sign of healthy attachment to the primary caregiver, a unique bond between a child and a parent. Eventually your child will begin to use the memory of your many returns as a comfort during the time of your absence. In the meantime, remember that several effective coping strategies are available to you as you weather this unsettling phase.
- Be attentive. When separating, give the child your full attention, be present and affectionate, but make sure that the goodbye that follows is quick and firm.
- Create a quick goodbye ritual. Whatever it might be: a hug, a kiss (or several kisses), a line from a favorite song, or a special handshake, try to create a special goodbye ritual. Rituals are meant to be familiar and reassuring. Make sure you keep it brief: lingering will extend the transition and, consequently, the anxiety.
- Be calm and consistent. When possible, try to avoid unexpected factors and follow a routine during your goodbyes. For working parents this might mean leaving the house or doing the same drop off with the same ritual around the same time each day. This will help your child be less frightened by the temporary separation and gradually build his or her trust in being able to handle time apart from you. As difficult as it may be, try to remain calm and composed through the sobs and the pleas: your child will absorb your emotional state. Attending to your child’s capacity to self-regulate as well as developing your own ability to tolerate and manage feelings of anxiety and guilt will be beneficial far beyond the early years of parenthood.
- Keep your promise. Stick to the terms of your departure as well as your promised return. When you talk about your return, help your child quantify time by giving it a “child-friendly” definition. For example, if you will be back at 4 PM, you can say: “ I will be back after your afternoon snack.” If you will be away for a couple of days, you can say: “I will be back after 2 sleeps.” Try not to change plans under the pressure of your child’s protests: this behavior can quickly develop into a tactic to avoid future separation.
- Practice. Practice being apart from each other for short periods of time and introduce new people and places slowly. If you plan to leave your child with a new caretaker, be it a friend, a relative or a babysitter, let that person spend some time with your child in advance while you are in the room. If your child is about to start new daycare or preschool, go for a few visits together before the full-time schedule begins.
As you remain patient and diligent in implementing these strategies, remember that like most early storms, this too shall pass. For most kids severe separation anxiety rarely persists beyond the preschool years. If, however, you are concerned that your child is not adapting to the separation or the state of anxiety intensifies, consult your pediatrician and/or a licensed therapist who specializes in work with young children and their families. We at Early Childhood Development Associates are here to help.