How to handle separation anxiety…or how to leave with a child holding on to your leg!
Nothing worse than leaving a child screaming for you not to go…but most kids will have separation anxiety at some point!
I watched a poor Mom try to leave her toddler in the child care area of the place I work out in the other day. The toddler was screaming, hanging on her leg, and Mom looked like she felt like the worst Mom in the world as she pried the child off her leg promising she would be back soon. I smiled at her and said, “It is hard, but I am sure he will be happy by the time you get a ½ mile in on that treadmill.” She peeked her head back in just a moment later (I know she couldn’t have run a 1/2 mile that fast!), and he was playing happily. I remember that feeling of dread when I would leave especially with our 3rd daughter; she always melted down and was totally pitiful. I remember resorting to promising all kinds of fun activities and treats when I returned. Not sure that was the best tactic, but it helped my “Mommy guilt” a little.
Separation anxiety is a given in most children. Some children experience greater anxiety than others, and almost all parents feel just as bad if not worse than their screaming child when they leave. Separation anxiety can start in infancy, peak in the toddler years, and then hopefully decrease by the end of the preschool years.
- Infants usually will not start to show separation anxiety until they develop the concept of object permanence at about 9 months of age. Before that point, out of sight is out of mind for an infant.
- Toddlers will usually experience separation anxiety, even if they did not seem to experience it as an infant. Separation anxiety will be at its peak between 18 and 24 months of age. Toddlers will express their dislike of separation very loudly!
- Preschoolers will start to be able to handle separation a bit more easily. Some 3 and 4-year-olds will learn that their expression of discontent when parents leave will have an effect on Mom and Dad, and often will manipulate parents when they find out it works!
- Always say good-bye. It is tempting to sneak out when your child is involved in an activity. This makes it easier on you, but harder on your child. Sneaking out can actually increase separation anxiety in a child. A child will start to become anxious every time he doesn’t see you fearing you have left. Always say good-bye but keep it short and sweet, the longer the good-bye, the greater the anxiety. Be sure that you give your child a hug, kiss and your total attention before leaving. Do not be multi-tasking as you say good-bye.
- Tell your child you will return and give them a “time”. This means “kid time”. Tell them what time by what they will be doing. “I will be back after you sleep.” “I will be back after snack time.”
- Separate often. That is the key to getting over separation anxiety. A child will learn that Mommy and Daddy leave, but they come back. Separation does not have to be long, but it needs to happen enough that your child can remember the last time. If you are a stay-at-home-Mom, you need to plan time away from your child. It is good for you and your child. If your child is starting daycare or preschool, practice being away and leaving your child for periods of time.
Soon your child will learn that he or she can handle the world when Mom or Dad is not always in eye view, that means you will have to learn that your child can handle the world without you too. I am still learning that lesson.
Take a breath, enjoy the joyful moments of each day, and remember you don’t have to be perfect to be the perfect parent.