Separation anxiety is one of those somewhat unexpected parenting challenges.
You know it'll probably be hard to leave your children...
...But until you see your child sobbing in front of you, calling out your name and reaching for you, you don't realize just how heartbreaking it's going to be.
Know that it is developmentally normal and you haven't done anything wrong if your child is experiencing separation anxiety - even if it happens when you make a quick trip to the bathroom.
It's not because you "spoil" them, nurse them to sleep, or any of the other comforting behaviours you've provided.
Your child just really LOVES you and you are their anchor. They don’t know about the world yet so being away from the person (or people) who make them feel safe is just hard.
You're also the person that understands their wants and needs best.
You know when they want their orange cup or how many fish crackers they like in the blue bowl or their favourite book right after nap time, without them having to communicate it.
Think about how comforting that would be when you're still struggling to learn language and communication skills.
The good news is that you and your child will get through it with practice, validation and reassurance.
Here's 7 steps you can take to make it easier on everyone:
You can prepare your child for separation starting in infancy by leaving your child for short periods of time (supervised by someone else, of course). For example, go to the bathroom, take a shower, or walk the dog.
Next, whenever you feel comfortable enough, leave your child with a family member or caregiver for longer periods of time, just be prepared to come back if your child is really stressed. Remember, this won’t last forever. It just takes time for a child to adjust. As they grow more comfortable, you can add more time to how long you’re gone.
2. Don’t Sneak Away
It can be scary for your child when they realize you’re not there. Tell them you’re leaving and that you’ll be back, even in infancy. Even if you’re just leaving the room - "I’m just going to get a clean diaper, you stay with daddy and I’ll be right back!"
This doesn’t need to be done forever, just until your child gets used to separating from you at home.
3. Validate Your Child’s Feelings
Let your child know that you understand how hard this is and reassure them you’ll be back.
You won’t be able to convince them of this with your words, all you can do is leave and then come back when you said you would, i.e. after school, after you finish showering, after work, etc. They have to learn to trust that you’re coming back.
4. Focus On What You Will Do
When talking to your child about leaving, focus less on the "leaving part" and more on coming back and all the things you’ll do together.
It's also important to remember that young children live in the moment so you don’t need to talk to them about an upcoming separation too early, you may accidentally create more fear. Mention it the day before or day of, whenever you talk about your plans for the day.
5. Follow Your Child's Lead
You don't necessarily need to bombard your child with all the details of your time away.
Like most discussions with young children, follow their lead and simply answer the questions they ask. Too much info can stress or overwhelm your child.
6. Plan Quality Time
After the separation, plan to spend some quality time with your child. "Fill up their cup" with love and attention. This will help them to feel good about the entire experience.
7. Read Books
Books can help children visualize and explore scenarios where children and parents separate but then are happily reunited. They can also help to normalize separation and the feelings involved.
Here's a few other books you might like. If you're not familiar with these titles, you can look up a Youtube read through to see if you'll like it before purchasing:
You Go Away by Dorothy Corey (Age 1)
Bye-bye Time by Elizabeth Verdick (Ages 1+)
When I Miss You by Cornelia Maude Spelman (Ages 2+)
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn (Ages 3+)
Separation Anxiety at School or Daycare Drop Off
Some children don't express any separation anxiety at home (i.e. when you leave the room) but may express separation anxiety when starting school or childcare.
At the beginning of each new school year, many parents are often surprised that their child is sad the first few days or weeks of school. Just know that's it's common and something they will work through with your love and support.