Dealing With Separation Anxiety with Your Child
The process of leaving your child is just as hard on you as it is on them; especially until you both become comfortable with being apart from each other. It is a natural response for you as their caregiver to protect and support them at all times and there are a multitude of emotions that come with handing over your child to someone else whilst they are screaming and upset. There are several steps you can take to help make the process a little easier for the both of you. Separation Anxiety is not limited to a specific age and may not apply for some children. It may also be an issue that comes and goes over time when circumstances for your child changes e.g. moving house. There are also circumstances where you may deal with Separation Anxiety on several occasions e.g. relocation to a new school or state. Separation Anxiety has no set end date and with severe cases can go on for months and months. Separation Anxiety may always be an issue if you have a particularly sensitive child or if you have a child/adult with special needs. This article will give you some helpful tips that may suit the needs of your child. No one child is the same and no one strategy is going to solve the problem but using a mix or all of these strategies can help with minimising the problem of separation anxiety.
Feeling Your Emotions
Don’t block or supress your emotions. They are normal feelings and it will become easier over time. Not dealing with your emotions will only build up in you and children naturally pick up on your anxiety making the process more complex. The same goes for your child. Let them feel the emotions and talk to them at an age appropriate level about their feelings, which will help reassure them. Quite often parents feel the need to protect their child from any emotion that is negative until they are a lot older. This is a natural human reaction to protect the ones we love but by sheltering them from emotions such as anger or sadness but what you are really doing is limiting their ability to learn to understand what they are feeling. So even though protecting them from these emotions and associated situations is well intended it actually inhibits your child’s ability to learn to deal with these emotions in a healthy way.
Don’t we all like to know how we feel in our relationships with others? Isn’t it nice to hear that we are going to be missed? The same applies for children and it is important for you to tell your child these emotions and how you are feeling about leaving them but also how it feels for you to leave them. Emotions are something that people don’t often put as a priority for separation anxiety when in reality it is the key. It is the emotional attachment that is at play. Don’t negate anyone’s feelings in the family. Tell your child, even from a young age that you are so happy that they understand (even if they themselves cannot verbally communicate this) that even though Mummy or Daddy don’t want to leave them at _____ that they have to, but I/we will be back at ____ because I/we love you. Make sure you validate how they are feeling and that it’s okay to feel this way. Give them age appropriate scenarios of when you have felt scared or alone.
One thing parents and caregivers tend to stop asking their child after a while is finding out how their day was at their visit/day-care/kindy/school. Children will often make the assumption that once they know you are happy with where they are going that for some reason they don’t feel they can say negative things about carers or the day they have had. If separation anxiety had settled but has returned you need to find out what has changed for your child and how they are feeling. Children need to know that they can come to you and talk about any type of emotion or problem. Even with young children you can find out a lot about what is happening using age appropriate language. You may not always be able to fix your child’s problem at any age but if they feel comfortable to talk to you about what is happening in any given situation you are providing them with an excellent self-help tool which leads onto Child Protection. Even more so you are giving them the ‘okay’ to speak about any event or emotion which is troubling them and this is a very powerful skill to learn. Later on in life this will help them deal with their problems and emotions in a more logical, positive way and they are less likely to not speak up when they don’t feel things are right but most of all you are validating their emotions and that what they feel is important.
No matter where you are going to leave your child (except in some emergency situations) there are strategies you can use to help make the separation a little easier.
As soon as you are up to it as a new parent, start taking your child with you to as many places and locations that are a regular part of your life. This includes the mundane ones such as shopping. The sooner your child is experiencing new sounds, surroundings, voices and environments the quicker they learn to adjust to new surroundings. Yes, I can hear parents saying ‘But it’s so much easier to leave them home!’ and I am telling you they will be so much better when you have to start the separation process.
Do you like to visualise and know where you are going? Well so does your child. You need to remember they do not have the long term memory and processing skills yet to visualise and understand where they are going. This is very important for special needs children where using visual representations such as photo’s or Boardmaker symbols (a computer program designed for special needs clients but in my opinion can and should be used with all children) can significantly decrease anxiety in children when transitioning to a different environment. You can also use visual aides such as a clock poster or timer watch that is set to the time that you will be picking them up. Talk to your child or show photos of where they are going and what they might be doing. Remind them of times that they have been there before and who they might see on their adventure. Always end the conversation with discussing what you will be doing together when you pick them up and how happy they were to be there in the past.
When you drop your child off during the initial phase of separation, try to spend a little extra time at the location where you are leaving them. Children read off our emotions and feelings and if they feel and see that you are relaxed and at ease with the person or educational setting that you are leaving them in they too learn to relax in that space. This can include specifically going to the caregivers home or educational setting several times where you do not leave your child there but just to visit. You may be having coffee with a friend that will be watching your child or you may stay for an hour at the child care setting that you will be using. Educational settings a generally happy for this to happen, especially if there is a separation issue. If they are not happy for this to happen I would be asking why. Any sort of care or educational facility should be transparent and they should welcome you accordingly. If the caregiver is going to be a friend, make sure you have had them in your home also for interaction with your child. During these times, start the process of separation with you leaving your child in the lounge playing with the caregiver while you do an activity or chore out of sight of your child. You will notice that your child will initially look around for you frequently but as they become more and more familiar with the proposed caregiver the more at ease they become and the less they look for you. This is also the time to start using the phrase of ‘______(child’s name) I’m not leaving you I am coming back.’ Even at a young age the sooner they start hearing this phrase and seeing you return they know that that’s exactly what will happen. You WILL return. It may sound strange to start planning with phrasing so early but believe me it does make a difference.
Depending on where your child is staying you may be able to take familiar items to the place of care. This is not always possible but if you can it will help with the transition. Particularly items or toys that have the parents scent on them and have personal meaning. You can also use things from home for ‘show and tell’ items if you are dealing with an educational setting. Making the place they are staying more familiar to them helps in many ways. This is also a strategy that can be very useful for special needs children at Kindy or School it can be a little trickier at a Child Care settings due to the nature of the facility. At Kindy or School you can generally work out an area that includes things from home.
Use different people to drop you child off to different places from a young age. This will help limit extreme separation issues when it is time for longer placements. Sometimes it does not matter what you try your child will find it terribly hard with separating from their main caregiver. See if you can gauge who they separate better from. It may not always be practical to use someone else to do the drop off but if you are dealing with very severe separation anxiety it will give you yourself a day off from going through the trauma of saying goodbye.
Depending on where your child is going you need to work out what you are going to accept and be able to cope with during the separation. The caregiver or friend that is taking over the temporary care must be comfortable with how long your child remains distressed and you need to have an agreed upon time frame in which if they do not calm that you will return. Initial separation and chronic separation anxiety is heartbreaking as you instinct is to protect your child and not leave them in someone else’s care kicking, screaming and crying. It is preferable to time how long it takes your child to calm down after you leave even if this means ringing the caregiver or educational setting. This gives you reassurance that they will calm down and help you hand them over in a speedy manner. Drawing out the process will only exacerbate the issue.
If life was easier everything would be scheduled and you would always be able to give your child ample opportunity to talk about them going to day care, a friend or school for a period of time without you but it’s not and there will be times where things happen at the spur of the moment. Still try to not spring on too many unexpected separations on your child. Giving a child time to process their anxiety over being away from you helps desensitise them to the emotions of fear and abandonment.
As I mentioned earlier, even from a young age you can start the process for later life. When you do have a friend or family member over extend the time you are away from your child in their own home. I also recommend that you get other caregivers to stay at your home while you do the shopping or go out for a coffee. This helps them become aware of the concept that you are coming back. Even if you have only recently had to deal with separation anxiety at a 4 or 5 years old this is still something you can do. It is very reassuring for children when they are in their own environment. Having someone in your home gives them an ample array of interests to occupy the time you are gone until you return. It’s never too late to use this technique even if you have to start with very small time intervals. For some children I have worked with it has been as little as 5 minutes but in every situation we have had a positive outcome.
In the end you need to remember and believe that they WILL calm down and as they develop their skills and strategies overtime, separation anxiety will become a thing of the past. There is also no shame in shedding a tear throughout this process as it’s a natural emotion. Don’t forget that you are not a bad parent or caregiver. Separation from your child has to happen at some stage and it’s normal. You have to work, you have to attend places your child cannot go and quite often your child has already calmed down and has been redirected before you have even got back to the car.
Remember parenting does not come with a handbook! Each child is different and what may have worked for your first may not work for your third. Slow and steady wins the race!