Separation anxiety can be a frustrating thing for both parents and children to deal with. On especially rough days, some parents may even start to question whether or not they’ve somehow “spoiled” their child because it is so hard to leave them with other caregivers. If you happen to be one of those parents, you are not alone in this thinking.
However, it is important to understand that separation anxiety in young children is a completely normal stage of emotional development to go through. Some will experience it earlier or later than others and some will quickly out-grow this stage while others struggle with it for a few years. All of these things are completely normal.
So, what is separation anxiety?
Medical professionals have defined separation anxiety as “a child’s apprehension or fear associated with his or her separation from a parent or other significant person.” It usually develops when a child has reached the stage in which they can understand that something (or someone) still exists even when they can’t see it anymore–a term professionals call object permanence.
Experts all agree that most young children will experience some form of separation anxiety at one time or another. This can start happening as early as six months old, though ten to eighteen months is when many the majority of babies begin to exhibit signs of separation anxiety.
What can you do to help ease their anxiety?
While you can’t make separation anxiety simply disappear, you can help to ease your child’s fears when they arise. As a mother and former childcare provider, I can tell you that the three most important things to do are:
1. Keep it upbeat. Children are very good at sensing the emotions of their caregivers–whether it is love, excitement, sadness, anger or stress. Being calm and upbeat, instead of anxious and sappy, during transition to a new place can help ease your child’s fears immensely.
2. Always say goodbye before you leave. If you think your child will adjust easier if they don’t see you leave, you are mistaken. Simply disappearing without letting your child know will only make anxious behaviors worse and prolong the time it takes for them to adjust to their new setting or routine. A simple hug and kiss with reassurance that you will be back is all it usually takes.
3. Once you’ve left the building, simply head to your next destination. Most children will cry for a few minutes and then are fine until their parents return to get them. Going back repeatedly to check on or reassure your child will only make it more difficult for the caregiver to settle them down once you are really gone.
For these tips to work, you need to be aware of your own anxieties about leaving your child. If you are anxious and tearful when dropping your child off, chances are they will be too. Keeping a calm, positive and reassuring manner will help your child feel that they will be safe. Once your child is familiar with the new situation–usually after several tear-filled goodbyes–their separation anxiety usually disappears.