Shakespeare said ‘parting is such sweet sorrow’…

Some ideas to help ease Separation Anxiety

Raising kids is a high-stakes responsibility, and in this age of social media and easy access to information about anything and everything, parents are easily overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. As a sleep consultant, I see this all the time from parents whose babies aren’t sleeping well.

Having kids is tough – no previous experience needed and no instruction manual!  Yikes!  Although compared to the generations before, we do have the internet to look stuff up.  But I often wonder whether that’s a blessing or a curse?  Especially when we look at social media.  It’s easier to snap a picture of the 5 minutes of relative calm and post that to Instagram or Facebook giving the impression that our lives (or whoever has posted it) are calm and serene. But it doesn’t show the other 23 hours and 55 mins of absolute chaos that day, does it!

I think social media is important in that it connects us (especially at this period of lockdown), but it can also add to any feelings of inadequacy we might be feeling.  With many schools and nurseries going back after such a long time closed, it’s no wonder that our little ones have got used to spending so much time with us, and there’s bound to be a bit of separation anxiety (although Flo and Nora who you went to school with 20 years ago are sharing photos of their bundle of joys trotting off happily to school without a care in the world!…)

Where arrrreeeee yyyyoooouuuuu?…

In my house recently, the thought process seems to go something along these lines…

  • Mummy’s not in the room.
  • Therefore, Mummy is somewhere else.
  • I would prefer to be there with her, because that’s just the way it is now.
  • Make that happen, or mark my words, I shall raise the most unimaginable of ruckuses. And those ruckuses leave us, as parents wondering “What am I doing wrong?”

Many parents I speak to tell me ‘I show my child lots of love and attention, so they should feel pretty safe when they’re not with me, shouldn’t they? Flo and Nora’s kids on Facebook seem to be doing ok?…’

But I’d like you to think about a couple of things here:

First, remember, you and your little one are unique individuals.  Comparing ourselves to others is never going to end well. As I’ve already mentioned, much like everything else on social media channels, these experiences are almost always conveyed through the rosiest of lenses.

And second, separation anxiety is completely normal, expected, and actually a sign of a healthy attachment between you and your little one – they’re letting you know that they miss you!  So you’re absolutely doing everything right.

Around 6 months old babies start to understand ‘object permanence’, so the knowledge that even if they can’t see something it’s still there.  Suddenly out of sight doesn’t mean out of mind!  So now when Mummy or Daddy leave a room, they know you’re not with them any more. They have no concept of time (obviously) and can be a little…well, impatient!  They just want you (their favourite people in the world!) to come back NOW!  

As they start to understand it, they start to understand that if you’ve gone, you might not come back!  Put like that, you can start to understand why they might throw a bit of a fit! I’m pretty sure I know a few adults who would have a bit of a tantrum about it too given half a chance! This is a great cognitive achievement, so should definitely be celebrated, although it might not feel like it at the time!  It’s a mixture of clever and a little heartbreaking all at the same time, isn’t it.  

So the answer to the question ‘what am I doing wrong’ is actually ‘nothing’! You’re doing it all perfectly!  If they didn’t have a secure attachment to you, they wouldn’t be getting upset when you leave!  It’s absolutely normal, natural and a brilliant  sign that your little one is learning.

Obviously knowing why it’s happening doesn’t help us as we’re trying to drop them with a babysitter or at nursery while we try to dash to catch the train for work and they’re throwing the fit to end all fits!

The next big question is ‘how can I prevent it?’.  Well, honestly, do you really want your child to stop missing you entirely when you’re not there?  Just waving as you leave them with a stranger and saying ‘Ciao for now Mummy’ as you leave?  I’m guessing it’s probably a yes and a no?

So whats’ the answer?

Really, we want to find a happy medium, knowing that they’ll miss us, but equally happy as we leave, so here’s a few suggestions to try to take the edge off the tantrums.

  1. Show them how it’s done

As parents, we are our little ones teachers.  They learn from our behaviour.  So if you don’t feel comfortable letting them out of your sight, they may feel that it’s not safe when you’re not there.  So try to find a safe space at home to let them explore and do their own thing for short periods of time to play without your direct supervision (solo trip to the loo, anyone?!).  It’s often the small things that can make the biggest difference.

  1. Don’t put it off

Learning that although you sometimes go but you always come back is a really important lesson.  As easy as it is to just let them hang off you 24/7 until they’re old enough to reason with (it happens!), it’s better for their development to learn that saying goodbye still means they’ll get to say hello, as long as you deal with it delicately.  Reassure them that yes, you are going, but you will always come back.  There may be tears, but unfortunately it’s one of life’s lessons they need to learn.

  1. Take it slow

It’s not a race!  If you can, try leaving them with someone else for short periods of time to begin with and slowly build on that.

  1. Start with someone familiar in familiar surroundings

I know these days many of us live far away from family, so it’s not always possible to enlist the help of our siblings or parents to help.  But finding someone you both know and trust is a brilliant way to start.

  1. Don’t just leg it!

As tempting as it might be to shoot out the door as soon as your trusted person arrives, it’s a good idea to spend a little time interacting with whoever is going to be minding your child.  Seeing that you’re comfortable with the ‘new person’ will help no end in reassuring your little one that this is someone they can trust.

  1. Face the Music

Many of us have, at least once, attempted to distract our toddlers and then sneak out the door without saying goodbye. After all, it’s the goodbye that provokes the reaction, right? But actually, you’re just opening up a can of worms for whoever you’re leaving them with.  It’s far better that they know you have gone and have been given the opportunity to say goodbye.  The majority of the time, although there might be tears, within just a few minutes of you leaving they’ll be a happy little lamb again.

  1. Get into a routine

Kids thrive on routine, they make them feel secure.  So this is a perfect example of when a routine will really help.  Much like a bedtime routine it doesn’t need to be long and drawn out.  A set number of kisses and hugs, a memorable key phrase, and a clear indication of when you’ll be back should be just the right balance of short and reassuring.

  1. Don’t baffle them with jargon

Depending on the age, many kids don’t really have much concept of time, so rather than telling them you’ll be so many minutes or hours, try to relate it to their usual schedule.  You’ll be back when they wake from their nap, or just after they have had their dinner etc.

There’s nothing we can do about stopping the protesting completely, but we can manage it calmly and effectively to help keep the tantrums to a minimum.

I should point out here, these tips are for little ones suffering from developmentally natural separation anxiety, although there is a condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder which is more severe.  If you’d like more info on this disorder, you can find more information here from the Child Mind Institute, or you can always contact your GP if you’re concerned.

For everyday protesting when you try to leave your bundle of joy, the suggestions above should certainly help get your goodbyes in order.

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