Our guest blogger is Erin Troup, LPC, NCC, CT from the Sprout Center for Emotional Growth and Development, LLC
You drop your child off to daycare, like any other day and they suddenly scream and clutch onto you like you are leaving them with a hungry and rabid bear. You get a gut wrenching feeling; your child is in emotional agony and at any moment you might be too. Separation anxiety has set in and you have some choices…..
- Grab your child and go running out the door telling your sweet baby “I will never send you back there again you will stay with me forever and ever”.
- Have the teachers pry your child from your arms and you run out the door in tears.
- The “distract and go sneak out” plan.
All of these things have been done and many more ingenious options have been tried; but before we decide, we should take a deeper look into separation anxiety.
Our children are wired to remain close to us from birth. That is how humans survive. Our basic early reflexes promote proximity and closeness. There are two points of development where separation anxiety is to be expected and it serves as a small step towards the next big burst of development. Around 6-8 months and then again at 15-18 months with the 15-18 month time period lasting a little longer and looking a bit more severe. Both of these time periods are phases- small blips in time that a child does something for a few weeks before it gradually reduces or just goes away. These phases are small but important in a child’s development.
So how do we know when this is more than just a “phase”?
Severity, length of time and contributing factors are important keys to determining the course of action.
If your child is constantly tied to your hip across all settings including your own home; (besides the typical “mom is in the bathroom let’s see if we can get her attention” game). This may be cause for concern. Children who are going through phases might like to be near you but they are typically comfortable to explore their own home (unless a stranger arrives).
Length of Time:
Typical phases will last an average of 2-4 weeks. If your child is having separation anxiety and should be past the 6 month and 15 month “developmental phase” points AND the anxiety is lasting more than 4 weeks it is time to call in the professionals for some extra support. Separation anxiety lasting this long is not typical and leads me to the next point.
Children love routine! Change is hard for adults and it is especially hard for a child. Any change in family structure, routine or environment can cause a child to find the need to be incredibly close all of the time. One of the most common scenarios includes the birth of a new sibling. Mom suddenly goes away or is not home when the child wakes up in the morning and Mom is often gone for a day or two. Child can go to see Mom but does not really grasp that Mom is only staying somewhere temporarily. When Mom comes home she needs to spend a lot of time with the new baby and she is often physically and emotionally tired. Some children adjust fine but some take this new change as a personal insult that has disrupted their life and has threatened their daily way of living, causing them to become scared and what does a little one do when they are scared? You got it- Cling like crazy glue to Mom or Dad. Children who have had out of home placement for a while, like a foster care situation or a recent divorce; where moving from home to home happens often may also create some anxious situations. Temperament also serves as a contributing factor. Some children are naturally a bit more “anxious” or “cautious”. They have always been that way and that is just who they are. They may see small changes as big deals and they need a little more reassurance and patience than other children.
So back to the big question at hand: What do I do!?
Let’s be honest- There are times when we NEED and times when we WANT to not be connected at the hip to our children at all times. Running out the door with your child in hand is not going to be helpful in the long run for you or your child. You need to separate- unless you are fine with a grown 33 year old living with you- trust me- you need to separate. Separation and reunion is how we learn to trust, learn to manage difficult things that life throws our way, build healthy relationships and grow.
Never sneak out- Object permanence or the understanding that things exist even when they go away is present around 4-6 months. If your baby has hit the 6-8 month separation anxiety stage- you can bet they have object permanence. Talk to your children calmly and softly and sympathize that you know it is hard for them to leave you and for you to leave them. Give them a reminder or transitional object such as a bracelet or necklace (that you do not mind losing and that is NOT a choking hazard) to keep throughout the day until you are reunited again. A picture of you and your child is also a nice transitional object that kids can keep with them and look at when necessary. Give a big hug, tell them “see you later”, have the teacher take them and go. Don’t linger, don’t hesitate, don’t go back for one more kiss, don’t peek in the window- JUST GO.
The more you hesitate and linger the more your child will sense that they have something to hesitate about themselves- that causes the fear which only creates more anxiety. If you are leaving your child at a childcare facility they have seen this before and many times they have seen it much worse so trust that they will engage your child appropriately and your child will calm down.
Most often separation anxiety is a developmental phase but if the reactions seem greater than others you have observed or you are unsure of how typical the behavior is contact your TEIS therapist or another EI professional to help you problem solve it.
Erin Troup, LPC, NCC, CT 11/2/2015