Eight Tips for Easing Separation Anxiety

A young family with a crying toddler girl standing indoors at home.

Parenting is stressful … HIGHLY stressful. Parents nowadays have access to so much information on everything involving our kids, and can get easily overwhelmed with what they find. Social media just fuel to those small flames of guilt and anxiety.

These feelings get brought up all the time by parents whose children aren’t sleeping well. But the sensation is also largely linked with separation anxiety. That new time in a baby’s life that they realize they exist separately from mommy (or any other main caregiver). The thought process can be loosely translated like this:

One of the other major contributors to the, “I’m doing something wrong,” sensation is separation anxiety; that oh-so-challenging part of a child’s life when they start to completely flip their lids whenever Mom’s not around.

The thought process, it would appear is one of…

Mommy’s not in the room.

Therefore, Mommy is somewhere else.

I would prefer to be there with her.

Make that happen, or mark my words, I shall raise some h#!l

Basically, they begin to flip their lid whenever mom is not around.

It’s no wonder that many parents start to question if they are doing “something wrong” at this point. It’s pretty logical to think that our well-adjusted child should be ok when we leave the room for a little while. (Even the other moms in our office or at our play groups report that their little ones happily play by themselves and are perfectly content when they are left with a sitter).

But keep in mind, the experiences conveyed through social media are often viewed through the rosiest of lenses. What you see on FB and IG is always the reality! And there is no need to be comparing yourself, or your child, to any others; on social media or in real life. Lastly, the behaviors that are linked with separation anxiety have been identified as a sign of HEALTHY attachment between child and parent; they are expected and are typical.

What exactly IS separation anxiety? The behavior is caused by a cognitive milestone known as “object permanence” which is defined as, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed.” This typically happens around 6-8 months of age, when your little one starts to realize that things continue to exist, even when they’re not in sight. In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind.

So as your baby begins to grasp this concept, they realize that if you, their favorite person in the whole world, are not there, you’re elsewhere. And; it’s possible, that you might not be coming back. It’s kind of fascinating when you think about it, but understandable that it would be a bit distressing. This realization could obviously cause a panic (just like adults may feel anxiety over a parent leaving and not returning).

Anyways, that’s what happens in your baby’s brain when they suddenly start having a fit every time you leave the room. It’s normal, it’s natural, and it’s a sign that your little one is learning, and that they have a secure attachment to their parent. Awesome! However, it’s certainly not “awesome” or “fascinating” when you need to leave them with a sitter, or take some “me” time, or put them to bed in their crib.

While some parents may be wondering how to prevent this from happening, I’m here to remind you that you probably don’t WANT to actually prevent. Something might feel off I you left your child with a stranger and they were completely OK with it – right?!? I’m guessing that would actually be significantly more troubling than some tears and howling.

But we obviously want to keep things at a happy medium, and if you’re struggling with a child who’s pitching an absolute fit every time you try to run an errand or head out for date night or lay them down for a nap, I’ve got some suggestions to take the edge off until this phase runs its course.

1.    Practice makes perfect

Your little one follows your cues so find a space in your home where they can play and explore a little without your direct supervision. You can’t expect them to feel like they are safe without your presence if they are not left out of your sight on a regular basis.  

2.    Don’t Avoid It

Learning about separation and reunion is an important milestone, so don’t just take the path of least resistance (A.K.A. keep them glued to your hip 24/7 until the first day of kindergarten). Yes, they might get upset, but they are learning that they can feel those feelings and you will be able to soothe and reassure them when you get back.  

3.    Start Small

Once your little one has started down this path then begin with short outings left with a trusted caregiver. A short run to the grocery store or a quick coffee date with a friend are better choices than dinner and a movie or an overnighter for the first few attempts.

4.    Start With Someone Familiar

Kids typically do a little better being left with a grandparent or family friend who they’ve already spent some time around. This is the time to call in a favor with those loved ones (and perhaps reward them with a special thank you snack or drink in the fridge). Not only will it help your baby, but it may ease your own fears to leave them with a trusted person.

5.    Stick Around for a While

After your sitter, parent, friend, or whoever is watching your little one arrives, plan to hang around for a bit. This will show your little one that YOU trust this person and are familiar with them; this can go a long way to reassure your child.

6.    Face the Music … errr Tears

It might be tempting to distract your toddler and then stealthily sneak out the door to avoid the reaction, but it’s important to let your child know that you will be leaving – AND coming back. Yes, this might provoke some tears and protests, but think about how much worse those will feel if your little one was not warned that it would happen first.

7.    Establish a Routine

Much like bedtime, a solid, predictable goodbye routine helps your little one recognize and accept the situation. 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.

8.    Speak in Terms They’ll Understand

Instead of telling them how long you’ll be gone, tell them when you’ll be back in regards to their schedule. After nap time, before bed, after dinner, before bath time, and so on. Especially if your child is going to be put to bed by a sitter, they should understand that you will return while they are sleeping and you will be there to get them up in the morning.

While you can’t, and don’t really want to (see above again), prevent your child from getting a bit upset when you are not around, you can probably keep the fuss and fright to a minimum. Use these tips to help your child by being assertive, calm, consistent, and supportive. And you will all get through this common** milestone of separation anxiety.

** These techniques are suggested for kids who are dealing with typical, everyday separation anxiety. There is also a condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder which is obviously more serious and warrants a trip to your pediatrician if you suspect your little one might be afflicted with it.

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