Separation Anxiety and Your Child

Separation anxiety is experienced in varying degrees by almost all toddlers and preschoolers and is revisited later in life when your “baby” is going off to camp or college. Partly because all transitions are difficult and partly because he’s had to “hold it together” all the while you were absent, it is also normal for your son to “act up” upon your return. Most children eventually grow out of this phase. In the meantime, you can reassure your youngster that you will return, and try out some strategies to ease the transition times of your departure and return.

Helpful immediate responses:

  • Try not to fall apart when your child carries on; accept the fact that your patience and understanding will be tested and hang in there.
  • Stay calm (at least outwardly), and speak in a matter-of-fact way.
  • Tell your child that you love him and emphasize the fact that you’ll be back. Since young children have little concept of time, it may help to relate your return to his activities or schedule. For example, you might say “I’ll be back as soon as nap time is over.”
  • Acknowledge your child’s feelings (but don’t encourage the behavior). Then, no matter how difficult, pry those little fingers off your leg and go through your established good-bye routine, waving, smiling, and speaking comforting words. Then go! And don’t look back.
  • Acknowledge your child’s fears rather than trying to talk her out of them.
  • Give your child a chance to decide when he’s ready to separate from you and “join in.”
  • Explain to your child that you will return and let him know when you’ll be back in a way he can easily understand.
  • Try leaving something tangible of yours with your child – a scarf, a photo of you, a card you colored for him – to help him deal with your absence.
  • Give your child something to look forward to upon your return, if possible.
  • Resist the urge to “sneak out” without saying good-bye to your child. Many experts believe your child may feel abandoned and betrayed if she looks for you and suddenly, without an explanation, finds you gone.
  • Leave immediately after you have said good-bye. Saying good-bye once can be stressful enough for some kids, without a long, drawn-out departure.
  • Try to project a positive attitude yourself lest your child pick up on your hesitation and sense that something is wrong.
  • Ease your own anxiety with a follow-up phone call to see how your child is doing. More often than not, you’ll hear that your child stopped crying just as soon as you were out of sight.

Easing child care transitions:

  • Set aside a little extra time to help your child go through a difficult transition.
  • Allow your child some proper closure at Bright Beginnings for a few minutes before you abruptly whisk her away. Sometimes it’s helpful to pull up a chair and literally enter your child’s world.
  • Develop your own family rituals for departure and use them consistently to give your child a sense of security.
  • Remind your child that he can hug his “lovey” (one special possession, such as a blanket or stuffed toy) when you leave.
  • Tape yourself singing songs or reading a story and suggest that your child listen to it when you are away.
  • Realize that it’s not unusual for your child to have a hard time adjusting to change, including the transition from being with you to your leaving him, no matter how loving or fun his substitute caregiver is.

Prepare the child who must go back and forth between Mom’s house and Dad’s house. For a smoother transition, try using stickers on a calendar so that the child has some sense of control over his life by seeing what the schedule is. In this way, the visit is not a surprise to him. Try to understand the stressful feelings and issues your child must be dealing with in this situation. Resist talking badly about your “ex” in front of your child; remember, he/she is your child’s parent, too!

One final note: As your child grows and becomes more self-confident and outgoing, separation anxiety will diminish; during the process, acknowledge your child’s feelings and communicate in a way that is sensitive, honest, and reassuring.