Whether it’s dropping your kid off at preschool, returning back to work after maternity leave or even getting much needed rest while a caregiver looks after your little one, leaving your child’s side is an inevitable albeit difficult step every parent has to take. If your child faces separation anxiety, here are 15 things parents can do to help their child prepare and cope for the transition.
What is separation anxiety?
A common fear that children develop from being away from their parents or caregivers, separation anxiety can affect babies from as young as eight months, to 18-month-old toddlers and even older kids. While separation anxiety usually goes away during early childhood after the child gets more independent and gains confidence, it can be a taxing process for both the little one and the parents.
It is interesting to note that separation anxiety can strike at unexpected ages; while your child might cope well in unfamiliar environments as a baby, symptoms of separation anxiety might surface upon reaching toddlerhood. Do not be disheartened as it is completely natural and even healthy for children to experience ordinary adversity in order to build resilience.
While the little ones might seem blissfully unaware of their surroundings and happenings, separation anxiety can occur once babies eventually realise the presence (and absence) of the parents. This typically happens around the eighth month marker, or as early as four to five months.
How to deal:
Start early exposure
Introducing your baby to regular caregivers and less familiar faces such as relatives or close friends at as early as six months of age, can help your child practice being away from you before they’re even fully aware. Getting used to someone else and the little differences, such as the way they’re held or spoken to, will help to minimise anxiety at a later stage.
Use positive body language
Especially since they aren’t able to communicate via speaking, babies are highly sensitive to body language. When saying goodbye to your child, ensure that you seem calm, confident and happy. Acting otherwise might cause him to pick up on vibes that the place isn’t safe, and become upset as a result.
Schedule each separation wisely
Much like how babies tend to get cranky when they’re hungry or sleepy, the little ones are naturally more susceptible to separation anxiety as well. It will help tremendously with the process schedule separations after feedings or nap time, when your child is most satiated.
Don’t sneak off
While it may be understandably easier for parents to “escape” when the child is unaware, this action might be seen by your child as a trick and therefore breaking down their trust in you. This will make it even more difficult the next time you attempt to leave as your kid wouldn’t understand or trust that you’ll return.
Alternatively, try getting your caregiver to quickly divert your child’s attention, with their favourite toy, fun games, etc., immediately after you say your goodbyes.
Keep your farewell short
It may be difficult for you to leave your child as well, but it’s important not to linger while saying goodbye as it may rouse the kid’s suspicion. Keep your farewell brief and casual instead of prolonging your departure. And don’t let the imminent tears lure you back to their side; once they successfully get you to reappear after dishing out the waterworks, it will only strengthen your child’s resolve to cry even harder and longer the next time you’re apart.
Separation anxiety in toddlers can peak sometime between 12 to 24 months (which is usually when a strong sense of attachment to their parents is developed) and with an even greater distress. Even though the child is aware that said parent will eventually return, they are now able to express themselves through fierce tantrums and other hysterics in a bid to exert control over and prevent an unwanted situation.
Communicate your ETA
Bearing in mind that your child hasn’t formed a proper concept of time, telling them that “you’ll be back in four hours” will do nothing to assuage their fears. Try zooming in on a specific and familiar timing in their routine such as “after snack time”, or “after nap time”. If you’re going to be away for the entire night, tell your child that you’ll “see them in the morning”, so they will know when to expect you.
Keep your promises
With that being said, be consistent at showing up on ‘time’. This will be helpful in building your child’s trust in you, and thus make it easier for parents to leave.
Develop a fun goodbye ritual
To help create a sense of order around your departure, try developing a small goodbye ritual between you and your child. It could be as simple as saying, “see you later, alligator” and having your kid reply “In awhile, crocodile”, or even a special handshake that’s practiced only during goodbyes. After a couple of runs, your child will recognise your leaving as part of the “process”, much like your ritual is.
Encourage their participation
Giving your kids a bit of responsibility can help ease the transition. Leaving for work? You could ask your child to help ‘pack’ your bag beforehand, or to assist in shutting the door after you leave. This method could also help with little ones who get anxious when their parents have to leave the room temporarily – if you have to grab their snack from the kitchen, get them to ‘clear up’ the eating area by putting away their toys.
Experience being apart
Whether it’s scheduling playdates or asking trusted family and friends to care for your child (even for just a little while), practicing being apart will gradually prep them for childcare and pre-school. Additionally, it can help your child gain more confidence in your absence, which will be very effective come time for an actual separation.
Stage: The Pre-schooler
Don’t fret if your pre-schooler experiences separation anxiety. Your child might be exposed to overwhelming stress from new environments, situations or developments that easily trigger these temporary relapses. In such circumstances, it’s best to get to the root of the matter. Could it be the arrival of a new sibling that’s got them feeling neglected? Or could it be that they feel uncertain of the new school they’re enrolling in? Finding out what’s causing the anxiety will help you better understand and help your child cope through it.
How to deal:
Establishing a routine
Creating familiar routines are key to instilling a sense of security amidst your child’s overwhelmed feelings. For example, arrange for the same drop-off/pick-up timing, or make sure your child gets used to a bedtime routine each night.
Let them know it’s okay
Help your child understand that it’s natural (and okay) to feel nervous being on their own. Clear communication about what they can expect during the separation, why you’re leaving them temporarily and what you’ll be up to while away, can help them process the situation better. It is important to offer your child assurance and build up their self-esteem instead of showing frustration at their difficulty with the separation.
Avoid giving negative comments such as “Don’t be such a baby”, or “Be a big boy!” and instead give them positive reinforcement and compliments when they cooperate.
Make their surroundings more familiar
Dropping your little one at preschool? Try spending time with them in that environment beforehand to help your child familiarise themselves with the new setting. Be it introducing them to their teachers, showing them around the classrooms or even hanging out there for a few hours, your child will be less distressed during the actual run.
Successfully said your goodbyes? It’s time to head out the door and stay away till the agreed pickup time. Don’t be swayed by your little one’s heart wrenching sobs or pleas for you to return – your reappearance will reinforce the message that they’ll get their way by throwing a tantrum, which will make the process more difficult the next time around.
Play it casual
However excited you are about seeing your child again, try not to make a big fuss during your reunion. Keeping it casual will allow your child to process the separation as something that wasn’t as big of a deal as it seemed, and will make subsequent separations easier.