Separation Anxiety and Helping Your Child Cope

dad saying goodbye to his daughter before leaving on a business tripHaving to leave your child on a business trip can be rough on your child and yourself. Newborns can be fussy customers with strong preferences regarding formula, pacifiers, swaddling, sleep and other daily fundamentals. Rarely, however, does a newborn give much thought as to who is holding him. Sure, he or she feels safe and warm with mom or dad, but chances are that they are perfectly content to curl up in Aunt Maddie’s arms.
 
As they grow into older infants, however, many develop a personality trait that surprises and baffles their parents. It might begin with subtle signs. Your baby frets when you hand him to your friend or whines when you step out of sight. Instead of going to sleep with hardly a peep, he or she sits up and cries the moment you put her in her crib. Her neediness and attachment to you may seem extreme. Your child may demand that you hold them constantly or sob uncontrollably when you’re not with him or her. 
 
Your child is experiencing separation anxiety, a common phase. It often begins in the second half of the first year, when the concept of object permanence begins to emerge. Before then, as far as he knew, you ceased to exist the moment you were out of your baby’s sight. Now, they are starting to realize that when you leave, you’re somewhere else and not with them. They wants you back, and since he has no sense of time, they doesn’t know when or even if you’ll return. 
 
It’s a period of mixed emotions. Part of you is warmed by their love for you. But you may also feel a bit frustrated. You need time to yourself, and their intense attachment to you may be hard to overcome.
 
Not all babies or toddlers experience separation anxiety. When they do, it’s usually a phase lasting for only a few months or even less. After this time, children begin to understand that you’ll return, and this concept soothes them when you’re out of sight. In some cases, separation anxiety can linger into or return in the toddler years. It’s often worse when your child is sick or hurt. Regardless of how long this phase lasts, it can seem like an eternity.
 
Although a normal part of development, the following are some parenting tips you can try to help ease your child through this difficult phase:
  • Don’t make a fuss when you leave. If you cry and linger, they feed off your emotions. If mommy’s upset and scared, why shouldn’t he be? Don’t sneak out, but give a quick goodbye and walk out while his caregiver engages him with toys.
  • Try playing peek-a-boo. Hide behind a doorway for increasing lengths of time, then pop back out with a big hello. These games will help them understand that when you leave their sight you’re not gone forever.
  • Introduce a transitional object such as a blanket or stuffed animal (make sure there are no choking hazards). Your child may not immediately become attached to the object, but keep trying. Offer it any time he’s upset. Hold it when you’re holding him. Leave it in his crib (for safety reasons, keep the object fairly small for a young baby). Eventually it will become a familiar object to comfort him in your absence.
  • For slightly older children, read my recent article Oh noooo, Daddy Forgot His Socks on some things I did on my most recent trip to help my 5 year old feel a bit more comfortable with my leaving. One thing to bear in mind, that while you are gone you should try to keep the connection with your child and call to say 'good night' and reassure them that you will be back soon.
Well, separation anxiety can be upsetting, but it won’t last forever. Over time it will get easier and easier. In fact, relish this time while it lasts. Someday, your little baby will be an independent teenager, and you may long for the time when she wouldn’t let you out of their sight. The important thing to remember is to try to connect with your child before you leave and while you are gone to help them feel secure and reassured, and to be conforted by the fact you will return home soon.
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