Separation Anxiety: Tips from a Mom Who’s Been Through It
1) Fake it!
Separation anxiety is not limited to the child. After about the fifth screaming meltdown, most sane parents begin to feel their own anxiety when it comes time to walk out the door. The key here is to fake it and fake it well. Have a plan (see Tips 3 and 4) and show your child your confidence in the plan, even if you don’t feel confident. Especially at the beginning. You know the child will cry: it doesn’t matter! Keep that smile on your face and make sure you exude calm security. Your child will always pick up on your cues and as you tense up they will too. If/when the meltdown happens, keeping your calm will help your child to calm themselves down as well and help them realize that crying and throwing a tantrum will not have negative repercussions. (The fear of being in trouble for not separating well can often add to the anxiety; if a child does melt down, it’s best to calmly shake it off and point out that “Hey! Everything’s fine, Mom’s home now, let’s go do something else.”)
2) Don’t lie.
It is so tempting to try to sneak out. Your child is happy and busy and you just want to pop out for a short while. You think you can get away with it without them noticing. You may even manage it once or twice. However, if the child does notice you are gone even once, you will have a much harder time every single time you try to leave after that. The child with separation anxiety will worry every time they see you put your shoes on, they will refuse to leave the room with the door, they will worry that you will disappear. It is much better in the long term to face the issue with a cohesive plan (Tips 3 and 4), and build up both confidence and trust in your child, than to have that confidence and trust destroyed if they find you missing.
3) Start small and build up.
Start with extremely short separations. In the most severe cases of separation anxiety, the child will not tolerate the primary caregiver leaving their sight for even short amounts of time. Make sure you explain to the child what you are doing (having a bath, going down to get bananas) and give the child something to do (3 puzzles, finish this colouring page, help the maid hang the clothes) and make it clear that you will be back by the end of the task. This defines what everyone is doing while you are away, and helps give the child a concrete amount of time for you to return (the child may not understand 5 minutes, but probably would understand 3 puzzles). This may mean that you have to fake it the first few times, just step out of your flat and don’t even go anywhere (have the bananas waiting), just stand there for 3 minutes and then return. The first few times the child will probably cry, and that’s ok! Let them understand that crying will not bring you back until you have completed the task in the amount of time you said (5 minutes, three puzzles). When you return, remember to fake it (Tip 1)! Praise the child for doing so well, hug and kiss them and then move on, no big deal (pay no attention to the tantrum). Do this at least once a day for a week and then slowly begin to increase the amount of time you are out.
4) Write it out.
As you begin to increase the amount of time you are away, it can be helpful to write out the items you want your child to do to keep them engaged while you are gone. Most children going through separation anxiety cannot read, so I recommend making ‘Treasure Maps.” Draw simple stick figure sketches of the activities with lines leading from the first activity to the next to the last. The child can then easily (with the help of a maid, or other caregiver) follow along on what they are to do and when mom will be home (Have a bath – drink milk – do 3 colouring pages – Mom will be home).
5) Don’t give up!
Especially at the beginning, children will test the parents to see just how loud and long they need to scream to get the parents to come home. Stick to a small absences in the beginning, keep your cool no matter what, and make sure that you stick it out! If you said 5 minutes and are standing outside the door listening to your child wail and howl, set your phone timer to five minutes and don’t go back in until the five minutes are over. This can feel like torture, but if you stick with short intervals and only build up the time away very slowly, your child will begin to gain confidence that you do return when you say you will, and that no amount of crying will change that.
One last tip: make sure everyone in the house is cued into the plan. Whoever is caring for the child while you are gone will need to be able to keep their cool even if the child throws a tantrum and calmly guide the child through whatever activities you planned for them.