By Catherine Konstantinos, M.Ed
TEIS Developmental Specialist
Many children go through a period where separating from their caregiver becomes extremely difficult. This phase can start around 6 months, but for most young children it peaks between 10 to 18 months and may start to get gradually better around age 2 (although all children are different). It can be a heartbreaking time period where a child who used to easily separate from her mother suddenly becomes inconsolable at daycare drop-off or even when a familiar family member volunteers to watch her for a few hours. The good news is that separation anxiety is a developmentally normal phase that indicates the child has formed a secure attachment with her caregiver–and it won’t last forever! But in the meantime, here are some tips to make separating from your child less painful and to teach her to trust that you will return.
Practice. If you know that you are going to have to leave your child with another caregiver soon, start by practicing brief separations. For young children, even the game “peek-a-boo” is good practice! When your child sees you disappear and then come back, she learns that separation is not permanent. You can also practice by leaving the room for brief periods to use the bathroom or prepare food in the kitchen. Each time, practice saying “I need to leave for a minute, but I’ll be right back!” If she cries, talk to her from the other room to reassure her that you’re still around, and celebrate your return.
Prepare. Talk to your child about the upcoming separation. You can talk about the things she will do while you’re gone. Make sure to emphasize that you will be back! If your child is old enough to talk, she might express that she doesn’t want you to leave. Acknowledge her feelings, but be firm: “I know you don’t want me to leave, and you might miss me. It’s okay! I promise I will be back as soon as I can.” You can also read books about separation to prepare your child. Some recommendations are:
Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney
Mama Always Comes Home by Karma Wilson
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn – for older children, 2.5 and up
Project confidence. Young children pick up so easily on their parents’ anxiety and uncertainty! There is no doubt that separation can be difficult for you, too–but make sure to project confidence in front of your child. She will be much more at ease if she knows that you are calm and confident about the separation. Remember, few children are inconsolable for long, and you are leaving them in good hands. She probably will cry when you leave the first few times, but any babysitter can tell you that most children stop the drama soon after their parents leave. You can always ask the caregiver to send you a picture once your child has recovered!
Don’t look back. Make the moment of separation as quick and simple as possible. Try not to sneak away–it’s important that your child understands that you’ve left so she doesn’t get confused. If you know her schedule, you can tell her when you’ll be back by tying your return to a particular activity: “Bye, I’ll see you after lunch!”
Debrief. Once you are reunited, talk to your child about what happened. “You cried when I left, but then what did you do?” “How did you feel when you saw me come back?” “I missed you too, but I’m glad you had fun at school!” Give your child a chance to express all of her feelings–both positive and negative.
Transitional Objects. Some children simply need a reminder of Mom and/or Dad while a parent is gone. You can try finding something special of yours to leave for your child that reminds her of you. It can be an article of clothing, a photo, or even a recorded voice message in a talking toy or talking photo frame.
Remember, separation anxiety is normal, and usually improves dramatically over time. The more practice she has with managing her feelings during separation, the more confident your child will become. You can support her by acknowledging those feelings and reassuring her that no matter what, you will always return.