Dealing with Separation Anxiety

[Originally posted at Just the Facts, Baby.]

One of the hardest things to cope with as a parent is anxious separations. Seeing those big eyes begging you not to leave and trying to pull away as your child clings desperately to your leg is often more stressful for the mother than for the child.

Here are two common mistakes parents make when dealing with separation anxiety:

1. Many parents don’t tell their child they’re going to be leaving until the moment arrives.

But the longer your child has to get used to the idea, the better she’ll be able to handle the situation when it actually happens. The problem with the “sneak out” is that the general feeling of anxiety in your child can rise because now she’s worried that at any moment, without warning, Mommy could leave. This can also extend to worrying that you won’t come back when you walk out of the room, or if you are out of sight for a few moments.

2. The other mistake parents often make is drawing out the act of leaving.

If your child is upset or crying, the worst thing you can do is to hold on to her, stay there and try to soothe her. At that point, you’re no longer capable of soothing her because you’re the reason she’s crying. The longer you stay, the longer she suffers and the faster you leave, the faster she can get over it. (And the longer you stay, the more you are confirming that this really is a terrible thing that is happening.)

Here’s what to do instead:

1. Empathy first

The more you try to talk your child out of what she is feeling, the more invested she will become in proving to you how upsetting it is. In other words, her behavior and anxiety will escalate. What you need to do instead is make a few empathic statements first. I call this the CALM technique. Try saying things like, “ You just want to be with Mommy, you love me and it’s so hard to see me go.” Children will relax to some degree because they know their feelings are understood.

2. Give messages of competence

Try saying something like, “Sweetie, you’re going to be just fine. I wouldn’t leave you anywhere I wasn’t sure you’d be safe and fine.” Or, “You can do this, I know you can because you did it yesterday and you will feel like playing in a few minutes.” Then give her a hug and a kiss and walk away—and don’t go back, no matter how tempted you may be!

When you return a few hours later or at the end of the day, don’t make a big deal of that either. If you overdo the reunion, you may be reinforcing that it was an awful thing that you both went through. A warm hug and casual statement like, “I missed you” and “I knew you could do it” will suffice.

3. Give them lots of notice and plan your exit

Make your comings and goings as predictable as possible for your child. Give her fair warning so that she has time to get used to the idea and when you do leave, don’t make a big deal of it. By telling her in advance that you’re leaving, you’re giving her that message of competence, letting her know that you believe she is capable of handling the information.

4. Practice leaving and coming back

If your child really struggles with separation, you can try leaving for a short period of time, or leaving the room (with a sitter of course) for awhile, but don’t leave the house. From there, you can extend the amount of time you leave and go from leaving for a short period of time—perhaps a half hour—until your child both knows the sitter and has gotten used to the idea that when you leave, you do come back.

Remember, for many children this is a stage and as they get a little older and accumulate more experiences of your comings and goings, they will be fine and the stronger for it.

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Please remember that the advice given on this blog is not meant to replace medical advice or the direct advice of a mental health care professional.
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