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Separation anxiety – and how to help your little one through it

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It’s a tricky time when your little one won’t leave your side (or even let you out of sight) without screaming and shouting. It can be exhausting, and can sometimes impact bedtime, but what causes it and how can you help?

First of all, don’t worry, it’s a very normal developmental stage and the sign of a healthy attachment between a parent and child. From your little one’s point of view, the thought process that leads to separation anxiety, is something like…
• Mummy’s not in the room.
• Mummy must be somewhere else and I can’t see her.
• I would prefer to be there with her and, if I’m not, I shall make it very clear I’m not happy about it.

Despite the fact you don’t need to worry about it you may wonder, what is it, exactly?
Separation anxiety typically starts to occur around 6-8 months of age, when your little one starts to realize that things continue to exist, even when they’re not in sight. It’s a cognitive milestone known as “object permanence” which is defined as, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed.”

In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind.

As your child begins to grasp this concept, he will realise that if his favourite person in the whole world is not there, you’re elsewhere and, if that’s the case, then you might not be coming back. This is why he starts becoming unhappy every time you leave the room. It’s normal, it’s natural; it’s a sign that your little one is learning and that they have a secure attachment to their parent.

It can be exhausting to deal with, though, so although we would not be happy if you left your little one with a stranger and they were completely OK with it, there are some tips to help you both cope.

1. Lead by example
Your little one follows your cues, so be aware that if you’re not willing to let him out of your sight he may begin to feel like he’s not safe if you’re not in the room. Designate a room where your child can explore a little and play without your direct supervision. It’s a small adjustment, but it can have great results.

2. Don’t avoid it
Learning about separation and reunion is an important milestone, so don’t take the path of least resistance and stay with your child 24/7 until they’re seven years old. Let them know that it’s okay for them to get upset when you leave and reassure them that you’ll always come back when you say you will. If there are some tears at the time, that’s alright, this is an important concept that they need to understand.

3. Start slowly
Once your little one has started to demonstrate the understanding that they’ll be spending some time with someone besides a parent, make it a short outing. Don’t plan on dinner and a movie or staying overnight for the first few attempts.

4. Start with someone familiar
Children typically respond better being left with a grandparent or family friend who they’ve already spent some time with, and who they’ve grown to trust a little, so call in a favour, and plan to spend at least an hour away from the house for the first few attempts.

5. Stay around for a while
After your babysitter, parent, friend, or whoever is watching your little one arrives, plan to stay around for half an hour or so. Seeing that this is someone you’re familiar with will go a long way in reassuring your child that they’re “good people” and worthy of their trust.

6. Don’t just sneak off
Many of us have, at least once, attempted to distract our toddlers and then sneak out the door without saying goodbye. Although it’s the goodbye that provokes the reaction, maybe even tears, it’s important for your child to understand that you’re going to leave sometimes, and that you’ll be back when you say you will. Again, this will increase their understanding and trust that you will return and that they don’t have to worry about you ‘sneaking off’.

7. Establish a routine
Much like bedtime, a solid and predictable goodbye routine helps your little one recognise and accept the situation. A set number of kisses and hugs, a memorable key phrase, and a clear indication of when you’ll be back should be just the right balance of short and reassuring. Be careful of lingering goodbyes, this won’t help your little one and is likely just to make them (more) upset. Be clear, and fine, that you are leaving – that way your little one will learn it is nothing to worry about and that you will return. If you are upset upon leaving, or even hesitant, this is something your little one will pick up on and won’t help them when you do leave.

8. Speak in terms they will understand
Instead of telling your little one how long you’ll be gone, tell them when you’ll be back in regards to their routine.
After nap time, before bed, after dinner, before bath time, and so on.

Nothing is going to prevent your child from getting a little bit upset when you leave, (and thank goodness for that, because if they didn’t, oh your poor heart) but you can definitely keep the fuss to a minimum.

Just be aware these techniques are suggested for children who are dealing with ordinary, everyday separation anxiety. There is also a condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder which is more serious and warrants a trip to your GP or health visitor if you suspect your little one might be affected by it.

For ordinary separation anxiety, be consistent, supportive, assertive, and calm. Before long, your child will understand the concept of you leaving and coming back and will wave you off happily.

As always, if you’re experiencing any problems with your little ones sleep, please do get in touch for a free 15 minute chat – We would love to help!

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