Dealing with separation anxiety in a positive manner helps build a sense of trust and safety with your child . Your teaching them that you will return, and that they will be safe and cared for without you there– which is an essential transition as infants and toddlers develop more independence and confidence in themselves.
New environments, schedules, and people are challenging for children is that it takes them time to build a sense of trust and safety in new settings. When you leave, your child may be thinking, “Who will help me if I get hungry? If I get sad? Tired? Mad?” He may also be uncertain about whether or not you’re going to come back to get him.
Even though you have never neglected to pick him up before, he may have questions about whether you will pick him up here, in this new setting. Young children also don’t have a clear sense of time. Your toddler has no clue what eight hours means. He only knows that you’re gone and that he can’t be with you right now.
Children gradually learn that nothing terrible happens when you’re gone, and that you keep your promises to always come back.
Tips for Dealing With Separation Anxiety
- Don’t Sneak Away.Let your child know when you leave and when you are coming back. In maybe tempting to sneak away and “avoid” all the tears, but it is important to your child’s sense of trust in you that you let her know when you are going to leave. When parents just leave, children can become more fearful: “I can’t really relax here because someone I care about might suddenly disappear.”
Even when you have to interrupt your child, saying good-bye is important. Telling your child goodbye also demonstrates that you have faith in her; that you think she is capable of doing well with her caregivers in your absence.
- Keep a Schedule. Make your leaving and returning as regular as possible. Have consistent drop off and pick up times to help your child adjust to the rhythm of the day. If you always drop her off after breakfast and pick her up right after lunch, her internal time clock with start to recognize that pattern, and that will make the separation easier. If your work schedule is more variable, you can expect that it will take longer for your young child to adjust.
- Don’t Make a Fuss. Develop a simple goodbye routine, and stay positive. If you are anxious, it will only increase your child’s sense of anxiety. For many children, a predictable routine around leaving — reading a book, blowing a kiss, waving good-bye — can make separations easier. Such rituals reassure children and fulfill their strong inner need for repetition.
- Leave a Token of Yourself Behind. Sometimes it can help to leave a token of yourself with your child. For a baby, this might be a familiar shirt that has your smell on it; for an older child, it could be a picture of you or favorite toy. Children can hold these cherished items or put them in their cubbies for safekeeping. Touching or looking at them during the day can help your child hold on to a tangible memory of you.
- Value Crying as a Form of Communication. For many children, crying is part of the goodbye, a reasonable way to make the transition between you and a caregiver. If your child recovers quickly, you can assume that the crying is just how your child says goodbye. If, however, your child cries for hours, several days in a row, it may be time to reassess what you’re doing: “Is this the right caregiver for us? The right schedule? The right situation?”
- Honor Separation as a Part of Life. There’s a natural ebb and flow to relationships that encompasses being together and being apart, being close and being independent, exploring the world and then coming back to our family. Good-byes and reunions are an integral part of family life. We go away and we come back. Learning to deal with separation is a skill that evolves throughout our lives.
- Timing. When children are tired, hungry, or sick, they are more susceptible to separation anxiety. When possible, try scheduling your departure after she’s slept and feed, and not introducing new separations when she is ill.
- Don’t Waffle. Once you leave, try not to come back. Remember that tears will usually subside within a few minutes of your departure. The crying is for your benefit – to persuade you to stay – but if you remain out-of-sight, a child will turn her attention to the caregiver staying with her.
- Start Small. Help your child cope with separation in small increments. Letting an infant crawl to the other side of the room, and not following her immediately, will begin to show her she can cope without you. Visiting a new caregiver environment together, without dropping her off the first time, will help her adjust better when you do leave.