One of the most difficult challenges of being a parent is having to leave your child. For many working parents this is a daily activity. And most would say that no matter how often they do it, they never quite adjust to the experience.
Being apart from your child is difficult for any parent, but it’s even more challenging when your child has separation anxiety.
What can you do to help an anxious child be apart from you?
One of the keys to making separation easier on your child and you is to prepare. Having a plan and making sure all components of that plan are in place and flow smoothly helps make the separation brisk and become easier over time.
Preparation can be as simple as making sure your child has everything they need for their day. Take time to double-check backpacks, lunch boxes, and coats. This way you won’t need to return or interrupt the smooth transition of dropping your child off for the day.
It also means making sure no other factors affect your child’s mood and make anxiety more likely. Children who have a filling breakfast and aren’t fighting head colds or other common childhood ailments are less likely to experience separation anxiety.
In addition to the practical matters, you’ll also want to prepare yourself emotionally. Leaving your child is difficult, but you don’t want to pass your negative emotions onto your child. They’ll sense your anxiety if you are uneasy about leaving them for the day.
It’s also important to realize that you aren’t doing anything wrong if your child exhibits symptoms of separation anxiety. Says Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP “Even though we are often reminded that our children stop crying within minutes of our leave-taking, how many of you have felt like you’re ‘doing it all wrong’ when your child clings to your legs, sobs for you to stay, and mourns the parting?”
If you struggle to leave your child, evaluate what you’re feeling and try to come to terms with the situation. If this is too difficult, you might need to consider a change. The last thing you need is for the separation anxiety your child feels to be caused by your feelings.
Separation anxiety can be normal for kids of certain developmental levels. The key to managing it is knowing what’s normal and what’s problematic.
Newborns do not experience separation anxiety. Infants experience it because they are gaining an understanding of object permanence. Once your infant realizes you’re gone it creates an unsettled feeling which leads to symptoms of separation anxiety. This tends to begin around four months of age.
Separation anxiety is common in toddlers. Even infants that experience no problems being apart from their parents can exhibit challenges once they reach toddlerhood, which surprises many parents. It’s normal for toddlers to cry and feel distressed when mom or dad leaves, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make it as positive an experience as possible.
Some preschool-age children express separation anxiety, but many begin to outgrow it during this stage. How anxious your child feels when you leave is a matter of their personalities and emotional needs. Remaining consistent and keeping your own emotions under control is still important during this time.
What Can You Do to Reduce Separation Anxiety?
There are several things parents can do to diminish the anxiety experienced during transitions of separation. For instance:
- Keep the goodbye ritual short and sweet. What the routine involves varies from family to family, but parents should be careful not to linger. The longer the goodbye the more likely there is for there to be problems.
- Be consistent. The drop-off routine should be the same every day. When your child knows what to expect and there’s a routine it makes it easier to part ways and settle into their day.
- Be focused. Although you want to keep your goodbye short and sweet, you still want it to have your full attention. A fully focused loving farewell for the day goes a long way in settling difficult emotions.
- Be strong. It might be tempting to check back in a few minutes or an hour after a difficult separation. This doesn’t accomplish anything and usually makes the adjustment even more difficult. When you say “I’ll see you at the end of the day,” keep that promise.
- Give them clear, understandable directions about your return. This way they’ll know what to anticipate your return. If your child isn’t old enough to tell time, use daily milestones such as “I’ll pick you up after lunch,” or “I’ll see you after nap time.”
- Practice. Before you drop your child off at school, try separating from them in familiar surroundings. A few hours at grandma’s house or time at home while the primary caretaker parent goes out shopping goes a long way in building a child’s “time away muscles.”
Mild to moderate and temporary separation anxiety is a normal part of growing up. However, if it’s interfering in your child’s experiences while away from you or it’s not improving or getting worse, it might be time to see a professional.