Separation anxiety varies widely among children depending upon their age, temperament or simply their mood on a given day. The trick for surviving it demands preparation, patience and the evolution of time. And if you’ve experienced it, you know: it can be just as hard on you as it is on your child, especially because it’s often not a one-time phase.
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Tears and fears related to being apart from Mom or Dad can resurface at any time, particularly in the toddler and preschool years, posing new challenges for parents and warranting different solutions. Just remember that separation anxiety is a normal developmental phase, one all of you will get through. Here are some simple ways to ferry through the transition:
Tell them it’s okay to feel nervous
Validate your child’s feelings are normal and that they’ll be able to handle them by reminding them of other times they were scared, and how it all turned out OK. Soothe worries by reiterating that you’re always there for them and will miss them too, but will see them in a few hours. Teaching children how to self-soothe — whether it’s holding onto a beloved stuffed animal or blanket, taking deep breaths or imagining their “happy place” — can provide temporary relief until you return. Letting kids know that many of their friends are experiencing similar feelings can also help.
Create good-bye rituals
Maybe it’s a high-five or two kisses on a cheek followed by a quick hug. Whatever you choose, it serves as a signal that you’re about to leave. Give your child your full attention during this brief interlude; be loving and provide affection. Another tip: tuck a transitional object, i.e., any small object that provides psychological comfort, in their backpack or leave “love notes” in their lunchbox.
Avoid sneaking off
Some parents think the best way to avoid a meltdown is to dash out the door when their child isn’t looking but that’s basically tricking them, which can break their trust in you. Instead, ask whoever is watching them (a caregiver, teacher or babysitter, etc.) to redirect their attention right after you leave with a favorite toy or an interactive activity, such as peekaboo, then say your quick goodbye.
Leave without fanfare
Keep goodbyes short and sweet. Don’t stall or make leaving a bigger deal than it is. If you linger, the transition time — and anxiety — will too. Above all, try not to let their crying lure you back. Reappearing after you’ve left creates additional stress to an already stressful situation. Be comforted by the knowledge they’re in the good hands of supportive caregivers.
Try to do the same drop-off with the same ritual at the same time each day to avoid unexpected reactions. For young children especially, routine is important and over time becomes something they learn to expect.
Keep your promise
Sticking to your promised return ensures you’ll build trust with your child. This means being specific in terms they can understand, such as “I’ll be back after naptime and before afternoon snack.” Remind them, too, that you always return. You can even practice certain questions as in “Where does Mommy go when she says bye-bye?” “She goes to work.”
Practice being apart
Leave your child with relatives or a caregiver for brief periods and short distances to acclimate them to your time away. As they get used to separation, you can leave for longer intervals and travel further.
Match your body language to your words
Even if you don’t feel it, flash a smile and a cheerful wave as you walk out the door. Kids can sense your confidence and will understand, on a primal level, that if you feel good about who you’re leaving them with, then they can too.
Young children often regress during anxious periods and may want their old pacifier back or insist on sleeping with you; hold firm and don’t give in to that. Instead, dole out extra hugs and kisses or promise one-on-one time upon your return. By sticking to your guns, you’re sending the message that everything’s OK. If you find your child’s separation anxiety is excessive enough to interfere with normal activities like school and friendships, and lasts for months rather than days, it may be a sign of a larger problem — in which case you should consult with your child’s pediatrician.