Soothing Separation Anxiety

Separation Anxiety is one of the toughest things for parents to deal with. When emotions run high and little ones seem to panic at your impending departure it's challenging for parents to know how to respond.

Difficulty saying goodbye or being away from mama can hit when you least expect it. For some babies this develops between six to nine months of age when intellectually they begin to understand their favorite people exist just on the other side of the door (object permanence). Other times it is initiated for toddlers by a major transition; moving, arrival of a sibling, changing childcare providers, etc.

My three year old daughter's recent bout of separation anxiety came on after being sick from school for an ENTIRE week - she just didn't want to give up the yogurt pops and snuggles to go back. I get it, sweet girl, but we've got to go to school.

While it's reassuring to know it's a normal part of a child's development it's not easy to know how to respond, here are my suggestions for soothing separation anxiety when you're faced with it.

Here are some strategies that may help you with your infant's separation struggles:

1. Lead by Example- Your little one follows your cues, so if you’re not willing to let her out of your sight, they probably, albeit un-consciously, feel like they’re not safe if you’re not in the room. So designate a room where they can explore a little and play without your direct supervision. It’s a small adjustment, but it has a tremendous effect.

2. Don’t Avoid It- Learning about separation and reunion is an important milestone, so don’t just take the path of least resistance and stay with your child 24/7. (It's tempting, I know!) Let them know that it’s okay for them to get upset when you leave and reassure them that you’ll always come back.

3. Start Slow- Once your little one has started to demonstrate the understanding that they’ll be spending some time with someone besides a parent, make it a short outing. Don’t plan on 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 with, and who they’ve grown to trust a little, so call in a favor and plan to spend at least an hour away from the house for the first few attempts.

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 half hour or so. Seeing that this is someone you’re familiar with will go a long way in reassuring your child that they’re “good people” and worthy of their trust.

6. 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 even if it provokes some tears, it’s important for your child to understand that you’re going to leave sometimes, and that you’ll be back when you say you will.

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.

Toddler Separation Strategies:

It's normal if you've a child who is older and suddenly struggling with saying goodbye. It's almost always related to a milestone or transition, and should ease in 2 weeks if you're consistent.

Talk About It, Read About It, Normalize It - There are lots of resources to help toddlers better understand saying goodbye and give them confidence. Help them name what they are feeling, and explore what it's like. We want the problem to go away, but it may be a simple matter of experiencing the feelings before patterns can change.

Books are great resources for kiddos who may not have a vocabulary to talk about what they feel. You may want to add these to your Amazon card or put them on hold at your local library:

The Kissing Hand

I Love You All Day Long

ByeBye Time

Time To Say ByeBye

The Invisible String

Make a Plan, I have a 3 step plan for saying goodbye.

  1. Get settled, say "hi" to friends, put away coat and lunch and sign in.

  2. Find a quiet corner for your kiss goodbye - I do this in the empty hallway or else my child is distracted and clinging to me instead of enjoying our connection. Like in The Kissing Hand, we trade palm kisses and a snuggle. and then I say my key phrase, "I love you all day long" (inspired by the adorable book above).

  3. Hand-off to a teacher or friend. I talked with a beloved teacher ahead of time and told her that it would be really sweet if my June-bug could snuggle her when I said goodbye. Some mornings this means she is prying my child off of me kicking and screaming, and some mornings she runs off to play with her sister or friends. It's always good to have back-up!

Don't Linger - In most cases, it does NOT improve your feelings or your child's reaction if you stay to give one more hug, then one more kiss, then one more squeeze, then one more breastfeeding session, etc. So, once it's time to give the kiss and say good-bye, make the drop off short and sweet for everyone's sake. At pick-up plan to spend some time wandering around and checking out your child's favorite toys, interacting and letting her share her discoveries with you.

Reassure Yourself - You may want to come up with a check in strategy (text or call) so that you can get reassurance from your provider that your child recovered quickly from the good-bye and is happily playing or snuggling. Then you wont be wondering about it all day.

No matter what age your child is, be consistent, supportive, kind, and calm. Before long, your child will understand the concept of you leaving and coming back. If you're child is struggling for longer than 2 weeks, contact me and we can try to get to the bottom of it together.

Was this info helpful? Which part are you going to use with your child? Let me know how it goes and please share with other parents who may be struggling with sad goodbye's.

Disclaimer: These techniques are suggested for kids who are dealing with ordinary, 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. But for run-of-the-mill fit-pitching when you try to leave the house for an hour or two, these tips should go a long way towards remedying the problem.

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