Expert advice on handling separation anxiety

22 March 2017
5 minute read

Hand your toddler over to anyone who isn’t you – a nanny or a playgroup owner – and you might be confronted with the dreaded separation anxiety. Your child acts as if they are truly terrified to be left with this awful stranger (actually a perfectly nice person they probably know quite well), and wails and clutches your leg. You eventually disentangle yourself and leave behind a child that’s screaming as if its life were in danger.

While most children only have mild separation anxiety, for others it’s a big issue that requires strategic intervention from the various caregivers in your child’s life. We spoke to Melanie Hartgill, an educational psychologist, about how to deal with the various challenges that this developmental phase represents. Here’s what she had to say.

Understand what separation anxiety is The first step, Melanie explains, is understanding that separation anxiety is a perfectly normal developmental stage and that most if not all children go through it in some way or another. There are, however, distinct types of separation anxiety and they need to be dealt with differently.

Baby separation anxiety
Separation anxiety in its truest form occurs when your baby is about six months old. Until this point, they operate on an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. They literally don’t think about you or other things that make them happy when those things are not right before their eyes. At six months, they begin to understand that things that vanish continue to exist. You will notice that your baby starts to look for a dropped toy. And to complain when you leave their line of sight. The absence makes them anxious, so they do what they can to keep their eyes on you.

The fix? Play lots of games that teach them about “object permanence” – that things continue to exist even when out of sight. Good games include peek-a-boo, rolling a ball out of sight or covering it with a cloth and then revealing it. You can play a simple version of hide-and-seek in which you vanish and reappear from behind furniture, but call out when unseen so your baby knows you are still there. Always be enthusiastic and loving when you return.

You can also encourage attachment to a “transitional object” – a toy or cloth or piece of clothing that they can hold when you are away.

Toddler separation anxiety
The second aspect of separation anxiety usually occurs when your toddler starts going to school and doesn’t want you to leave them in the care of other people, or when you leave them in the care of a nanny. This is a normal emotional response, but there are ways to make the transition easier.

The fix? Melanie recommends that on the first day that you leave your child at a school or crèche, stay a while to settle them in. Most schools encourage this. Then stay for a little less time each day until all you do is a friendly handover and kiss goodbye.
If you are conflicted about leaving your child, try not to show your sadness or anxiety, as this will only make theirs worse. Establish a farewell ritual that you stick to, which will make it easier for your child to know what comes next – for example always put their bag in a locker then lead them to the crayons and get them started on drawing a picture, then give them a kiss goodbye. Explain when you will fetch them in time frames that they can understand – like “after lunch” or “after your nap” or “after play ball”.

It is only with assistance that you can disentangle yourself and depart.

If they start to cry or hold on to you, enlist the help of a teacher to cuddle and hold on to them while you leave. Don’t give in to the tears and prolong your departure. The problem will only flare up again when you try to leave later.

Don’t sneak off unnoticed while they are distracted. It may save you from tears and clinging this time, but it will make things far worse the next time. Maintaining trust is extremely important in combating separation anxiety.

And remember, most children are fine within five minutes of their parent’s departure. Melanie says you can check in with the teacher on the phone a little bit later if you are worried. You will most likely be reassured to hear that your child is laughing and playing without a care in the world.

Separation anxiety syndromeSeparation anxiety is perfectly normal, but a prolonged or intense case can indicate that your child has a less common condition called separation anxiety disorder. If your child refuses to go to school or develops minor illnesses so they can stay at home (illnesses that vanish for the rest of the day, only to magically reappear the next morning), this could be a sign of this more deep-rooted problem.

The fix? Although separation anxiety disorder often requires professional help, Melanie says you can try these approaches first:

  • Comfort and reassure your child. Don’t deny or demean their fears.
  • Arrange for your child to call you at a certain time during the school morning to break up the separation.
  • Make sure that your child knows what to expect at school each day so that there are no sudden and unwelcome surprises.
  • Negotiate the length of time you will leave your child at the school – again in terms that they can understand – and then stick to that agreement.
  • Don’t show your anger, disappointment or frustration.
  • Be kind, consistent and firm in encouraging your child to go to school.
  • Engage the help of a school counsellor or psychologist (or a gentle teacher) to support your child.

Bear in mind that the way that you respond to a situation will influence how your child handles it. Be responsive to their needs and be there when they need you.

The bottom line No parent enjoys having a child cry and cling when they are trying to leave. It is heart breaking and difficult. Just remember that it is probably far harder on you than it is on them, and that screaming is a child’s way of expressing their dissatisfaction – not necessarily terror or pain. Use the strategies Melanie outlined to help your child through this phase, and hold thumbs that it will soon be a not so pleasant memory.

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