Tears and tantrums as you say goodbye to your child can be stressful and heart-wrenching. It can make you feel like the worst mom in the world. Sometimes, it can keep you from doing things you need to get done without your kids. Take heart, mama. It is a normal and common occurrence for many children, and there are ways you can effectively handle it until your child outgrows it.
What is separation anxiety?
Separation anxiety is when a child shows fear or distress at being separated from their primary attachment figure. Separation anxiety usually appears around 8 months, with a peak in presentation up to 14-18 months of age. It varies greatly between individual children. Some become clingy but cope after an initial, short period of distress. Others become so hysterical and overwhelmed until their parent or carer returns. Separation anxiety can also be coupled with a separate issue called “stranger anxiety,” where children become upset when new people are around or near them. This can appear at a similar time to separation anxiety but typically resolves before one year of age.
Anxiety and worries are a normal part of childhood; however, separation anxiety can appear out of the blue and without warning. Children become more mobile around 8 months old, and they suddenly realize that the world is a huge place, and they are tiny people. Separation anxiety is an essential fear because it ensures our children are cautious about leaving the safety of our side.
There is also a stage of development when children discover object permanence, which refers to the understanding that objects continue to exist despite not seeing, hearing, or otherwise sense them. This is why peekaboo is such a fun game for our little ones. They are truly overjoyed at the trick mom and dad can do, hiding behind their hands and completely disappearing . . . magic! However, until children learn object permanence (that things exist despite them not being visible), they can be truly terrified that when you leave them, you may cease to exist. They also don’t fully understand when or if you will return.
Parents can experience separation anxiety too!
Separation anxiety doesn’t only affect children. Parents can also experience separation anxiety too!
Parenting is tough and very emotional at times, particularly when your child is struggling or distressed. Anxiety around separating from your child can become anticipatory, meaning that you come to dread drop-off times. Or it can stem from your own discomfort or fears around leaving your child. These fears are normal; we are hardwired to protect our children. What better way to keep them safe than to keep an eye on them at all times? However, normal development and life stages mean that children will enter formal care (child care, school, etc.) at some point, and they will slowly develop their own identity and need for independence. So, learning how to separate from our children is a normal and essential part of childhood, for both our and their benefit.
So how can you support your child with separating without distress? Here are some tips.
How to Handle Separation Anxiety
Slowly introduce your child to new places (where possible).
Start with a no-pressure visit, drive past, show them pictures, etc. If you pre-expose them to a new place and help them cope in advance with the idea that they will be going to this place (and you will be leaving them at), they will be familiar and less fearful when the time comes for this change.
Bring a safety or comfort item for your child.
Lend a sense of security by bringing along something they already know is safe and makes them feel calm.
Practice makes perfect.
Start small and practice often leaving when you are in a safe place. For example, try “I just need to go into the kitchen for a minute.” Or leave your child with a carer while you run a short errand before leaving them for longer periods of time.
Tell your child if you are leaving, do not, and I repeat . . . do not sneak away.
This will add to their insecurity and fears that you are leaving them forever. It might feel easier to quickly leave when you see them distracted and to avoid the emotional scenes. But in the long term, it will leave them feeling more worried.
Set them up with an enjoyable activity before you leave.
This works particularly well if you have used one of the steps above (about pre-exposing them to a new environment). For example, you can remind them of a great toy they enjoyed last time they went somewhere or find an activity or person you know they connected with to help them transition to a new environment.
Even with very small children, it’s important to build their self-esteem and self-efficacy (the belief that they can achieve something) so they have the confidence to cope with increased independence. You can give them tasks or objectives (asking them for help with something you are doing or independent self-care activities) that are developmentally age-appropriate so that they feel a sense of achievement and capability. Or you could support them to make age-appropriate choices. Such as, “What dish (give two options) do you want me to cook for dinner?” Or, “What pair of pants do you want to choose between?”
We instinctively want to look after our children and protect them. But we also need to help them learn to be independent and cope with adversity and distress. Being a parent is tough, which means it’s also important for you to look after yourself. So don’t forget to seek help, increase self-care, and be compassionate to yourself if you are struggling with adjusting to increased independence or separation for your child.