noun anxiety provoked in a young child by separation or the threat of separation from their mother.
We have all experienced separation anxiety at one time or another in the course of our lives. Our first sleepover, those long but fun weeks at summer camp and leaving home for university, are all memorable but bittersweet milestones in our lives. As we grew we learned that (in most cases), our parents return and peace is restored to the universe. Babies, however, are not yet capable of the higher level, rational thinking (called object permanence) that once got us through those dark and often scary nights at camp. Their evolving brains are not yet able to make sense of why “mom just took off and left me with a stranger.”
Separation Anxiety is a normal part of a child’s development process. According to Wikipedia “normal separation anxiety indicates healthy advancements in a child’s maturation,” and happens as babies begin to understand that they are little people in the world. Almost all children around the ages of 6 months and all the way up to 3 years experience some degree of separation anxiety. Children become used to the comfortable and familiar faces around them and rely on these feelings as their sense of calm and well-being. Consequently, it’s those comfy, cozy, safe feelings that cause our children challenges during times of separation from us. The anxiety seems to wax and wane during these years, often flaring when babies are ill, teething or when there is over-parenting or a significant change in the home.
As first-time parents (and parents of many children, alike) we are programmed to experience visceral reactions when our children cry, especially at the times when we must separate from them for a bit. We often leave daycares or nurseries in tears wondering if our children are thinking “has mommy left me for good?” or “oh no, she doesn’t love me anymore!” The good news is that this is all very NORMAL and HEALTHY! When our babies experience the emotions surrounding separation anxiety, it is a positive sign that all is going well and that we have formed a secure, healthy attachment with our child.
Leaving our children for the first time is equally excruciating for us as parents. My oldest son spent three weeks at camp last year and I cried for a solid day when he left. My youngest girl will pack her bags and head off to her very first camp experience this summer. I will cry then, too. The upshot to all of these tears is that we can find comfort (often cold comfort, I know) that we are helping to encourage healthy independence and good self-esteem in our little ones. Children grow and develop best when they have a healthy balance of attachment and independence in their lives. In fact, one of our most important jobs as parents is to teach our children how to function independently in the world around them.
So how do we navigate the emotional rollercoaster of being away from our children? Time is the ultimate resolution to this question, but of course, since we are busy mothers we have little-to-none of THAT and since we cannot hurry-up growing up, we need some additional strategies to alleviate some of the stress of those tearful first days of leaving our babies. Below are some tips that might help comfort your baby (and you) when separation is necessary.
1. DON’T SNEAK AWAY: While tempting, experts agree that sneaking away when your child isn’t looking causes more anxiety and distress in babies. Instead, give a quick kiss good-bye and maybe a short “I love you” and go, even if your child is crying. Establishing the healthy, consistent pattern of acknowledging good-byes and happy reunions helps to build good self-esteem and independence.
2. PRACTICE: As the adage goes “Practice Makes Perfect”, the same applies with separation anxiety. Practice leaving your child with a loved one (sometimes even Dad will do, if your child is especially attached to you) like a grandparent or aunt, for short periods of time as much as possible. This will help to establish the routine of leaving and coming back. This also helps us as parents feel less guilt and stress surrounding leaving, as we also become accustomed to the practice.
3. HAVE A CONSISTENT CAREGIVER: Just as our familiar face offers our child comfort, a consistent caregiver can do the same. Plan to leave your child with someone he or she knows or sees on a regular basis. While there may still be tears, your child will likely settle more quickly when he or she is comfortable with the people around them.
4. DON’T GIVE IN: As tempting as it might be to peek in, or to go back for another cuddle or kiss, try your best to no to do so. Repeated trips back into the room only prolong the inevitable and often make saying good-bye a longer, more drawn-out challenge for everyone involved.
5. BREATHE: It will all pass in the blink of an eye, so BREATHE, get some sleep, relax and try to enjoy each and every milestone. Easy, right?
Written by Ann Nethercot, MumNet Childcare Manager