Separation anxiety ? Simple and practical ideas to avoid teary and tantrum filled goodbyes
Posted by: Sue Atkins
I’m appearing on ITV ‘This Morning’ on Friday discussing separation anxiety, school issues and all things parenting.
Here’s an article I wrote about handling separation anxiety with your child.
One on the common questions I am often asked is about a toddler clingying to Mum and not even letting her go to the loo which is a very common problem so here is the article I wrote to answer some of those concerns.
I work with many parents of toddlers going through the separation anxiety phase.
It can be a tough time for both of you but I think it helps to know that this is a very common part of a child’s early year’s development.
Around their first birthday, many children develop separation anxiety, and get upset when you try to leave them with someone else, and although separation anxiety is a perfectly normal part of childhood development, it can be a really upsetting and unsettling experience for both of you.
Understanding what your child is going through and having a few coping strategies can help both of you get through it.
How Separation Anxiety Develops
Babies adapt pretty well to other people caring for them. I find it’s often the parents who suffer anxiety about being separated more than the infants do!
As long as their needs are being met, most babies younger than 6 months adjust easily to other people.
Sometime between 4-7 months, babies develop a sense of “object permanence” and begin to learn that things and people exist even when they’re out of sight.
This is when babies start playing the “dropping” game of — dropping things over the side of the high chair and expecting you to keep on getting it. I remember this phase well when my son was a baby!
The same thing occurs with a parent.
Babies realise that there’s only mum or dad, and when they can’t see you, that means you’ve gone away. And because babies and toddlers most don’t yet understand the concept of time, they don’t understand that you’ll come back.
They think you’ve gone for good!
Whether you’re in the kitchen, in the next bedroom, or at the office, it’s all the same to your young toddler.
You’ve disappeared, and your child will do whatever he or she can to prevent this from happening.
Stresses Can Trigger Anxiety
Between 8 months old 1 year old, children grow into more independent toddlers, yet they are even more uncertain about being separated from you as you have bonded.
This is when separation anxiety can often develop, and a child may become agitated and upset when you try to leave.
Whether you need to go into the next room for just a few seconds, leave your child with a babysitter or grandparent for the evening, or drop off your child at day care, your little one might now start reacting by crying, clinging to you, and resisting attention from others.
Because children develop at their own speed, the timing of separation anxiety can vary widely from child to child.
Some toddlers may go through it later, between 18 months and 2½ years of age. Some may never experience it.
And for others, certain life stresses can trigger feelings of anxiety about being separated from you – common ones being a new child care situation or carer, the arrival of a new sibling, moving to a new home, going into a big bed, divorce or tension at home.
How long does separation anxiety last?
It varies, depending on your toddler and how you respond. If you are tense, anxious and uneasy your toddler will pick up on your vibes and this will make it all worse.
So try to relax, picture things going well and easily and that in a short time this will soon pass.
Keep the bigger picture in your mind.
Otherwise toddlers soon learn to understand the effect this behaviour has on you. If you come running back into the room every time your child cries and then stay there longer and longer or cancel your plans, your child will continue to use this tactic to avoid separation.
It’s best to smile, hug and leave quickly.
In some cases, depending on your child’s temperament, separation anxiety can last from infancy through the primary school years.
I remember when I was a Reception Class teacher and the “BIG Day” arrived for starting school for the first time. Often the children cried for about 5 minutes while they got used to the new routine and felt sad at the separation but within minutes they were playing with the sand or water or toys and were relaxed and comfortable – but their parents often went off feeling guilty and anxious and ended up worried all morning when really the separation anxiety only lasted a few minutes and disappeared after a short time.
What You May Be Feeling
During this stage, you might experience different emotions.
It can be reassuring to feel that your child is as attached to you as you are to them. But you’re likely to feel guilty about taking time out for yourself, leaving your child with a carer, or about going to work. And you may start to feel overwhelmed by the amount of attention your child seems to need from you.
I’ve even coached mums exasperated about not being able to even go to the toilet without a toddler following them and crying if they leave.
So it’s important to try and get some adult “me” time in the evenings to keep your sense of perspective.
Keep in mind that your little one’s unwillingness to leave you is a good sign that healthy attachments have developed between the two of you.
Eventually, your child will be able to remember that you always return after you leave, and that will be enough comfort and reassurance while you’re gone. This also gives your toddler a chance to develop their own coping skills and a little independence.
Making Goodbyes Easier
These strategies can help ease you and your toddler through this difficult period.
- Timing is everything. Try not to start day care or child care with an unfamiliar person when your little one is between the ages of 8 months and 1 year, when separation anxiety is first likely to appear.
Also, try not to leave when your toddler is likely to be tired, hungry, or restless. If at all possible, schedule your departures for after naps and mealtimes.
- Practice. Practice being apart from each other, and introduce new people and places gradually. If you’re planning to leave your child with a relative or a new babysitter, then invite that person over in advance so they can spend time together while you’re in the room.
If your child is starting at a new day care centre or nursery, make a few visits there together before a full-time schedule begins. Practice leaving your child with a carer for short periods of time so that he or she can get used to being away from you.
- Be calm and consistent. Create an exit ritual where you say a pleasant, loving, and firm goodbye. Stay calm and show confidence in your child. Reassure them that you’ll be back — and explain how long it will be until you come back – say something like “I’ll be back in 2 of your favourite CBBIES programmes” using concepts your toddler understands like “after lunch” because your child can’t yet understand time. Give them your full attention when you say goodbye, and when you say you’re leaving, mean it; coming back will only make things worse.
- Follow through on promises. It’s very important to make sure that you return when you have promised to. This is critical — this is how your child will develop the confidence that he or she can make it through the time apart. So don’t let them down – it will frighten them.
As hard as it may be to leave a child who’s screaming and crying for you, it’s important to have confidence that the carer can handle it. It may help both of you to set up a time that you will call to check in, maybe 15 to 20 minutes after you leave. By that time, most toddlers have calmed down are playing with other things. Don’t let yourself give in early and call sooner!
If you’re caring for another person’s child who’s experiencing separation anxiety, try to distract the child with an activity or toy, or with songs, games, or anything else that’s fun. You may have to keep trying until something just clicks with the child.
Also, try not to mention the child’s mother or father, but do answer the child’s questions about his or her parents in a simple and straightforward way. You might say: “Mummy and Daddy are going to be back as soon as they are have dinner. Let’s play with some toys!”
It’s Only Temporary
Remember that this phase will pass. If your child has never been cared for by anyone but you, is naturally shy, or has other stresses, it may be worse than it is for other kids.
Trust your instincts. If your child refuses to go to a certain babysitter or day care centre or shows other signs of tensions, such as trouble sleeping or loss of appetite, then there could be a problem with your childcare situation.
If intense separation anxiety lasts into nursery, primary school, or beyond and interferes with your daily activities, discuss it with your doctor. It could be a sign of a rare but more serious condition known as separation anxiety disorder.
Kids with separation anxiety disorder fear being lost from their family members and are often convinced that something bad will happen. Talk with your doctor if your child has signs of this, including:
panic symptoms (such as nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath)
or panic attacks before a parent leaves
nightmares about separation
fear of sleeping alone
excessive worry about being lost or kidnapped or going places without a parent
For most toddlers, the anxiety of being separated from you passes without any need for medical attention. But if you have concerns, talk to your doctor.
Each night just before you fall asleep just daydream and visualise everything going really well. See what you see in great detail – notice what you are doing and what your little one is doing when it’s going really well – imagine them smiling and relaxing and hear what you hear at that time too. Notice what you say and how you say it. Notice your tone of voice and your body language when it’s going well and relax knowing that it will in time go really well.
Feel yourself being at ease and say over and over gently inside your head, “ I am grounded, centred, positive and relaxed” as this will help your body to relax and your toddler will pick this up and will take their lead from you.