Originally posted here.
There comes a point in every child’s life when she’s forced to face the world without the parents she depends upon so fiercely. While painful for everyone involved, this rite of passage is an essential one along the road to a healthy, independent adulthood. In the meantime, however, managing the worst aspects of separation anxiety can be a trial for kids, parents and childcare providers alike. Whether you’re a parent forced to leave your hysterical child behind for the day or a childcare provider looking for ways to ease the worst of a child’s pain, these tips can help make managing separation anxiety easier and more effective.
- Practice Separation – If a parent is returning to work after a long absence, introducing their child to a preschool environment or getting ready for the first day of kindergarten, it’s wise to start practicing separation on a small scale well in advance of the big change. In the weeks or even months leading up to a shift in routine, start talking to your child about what she can expect and practicing small separations. Leaving her in the care of a grandparent while you go to the grocery store or running errands while she’s home with a trusted adult are small ways you can help prepare her.
- Create a Goodbye Ritual – Establishing a goodbye ritual and a complimenting reunion ritual helps your child to not only prepare for an imminent separation, but also to realize that there are two sides to the situation. If you’re performing the goodbye aspect, she knows the reunion is coming. As a result, she may feel more confident that you will be back for her.
- Discourage Lingering – Childcare providers and educators helping kids to overcome separation anxiety and parents preparing to leave their little ones alone with a new childcare provider should discourage lingering or bargaining. Your child needs to learn that you’ll be back for him, which is often the root of his fears. In order to do that, he needs to know the boundaries. Stalling and lingering only lengthens the anxiety he feels over an impending departure, and teaches him that there is leeway in the routine.
- Stay Upbeat and Confident – When a parent is tearful or anxious, they telegraph those feelings to a child, who can easily pick up on them. If you’re scared, your child knows that she should feel afraid, too. Even if you’re miserable, keep a smile on your face and stay cheerful when you say your goodbyes.
- Use Comfort Items – Some kids are better able to soothe themselves when they have a beloved plush toy or a favorite blanket. Whatever your child’s comfort item is, be sure that he has access to it when he’s upset and anxious.
- Be Honest With Kids – Telling a child that you’ll “be right back” when you’re heading off for a full day of work leads your child to believe that you should be back any moment for her, and that you’re late or have forgotten her. Be honest with your child, telling her that she can expect you to return at a certain time and that you’ll be back for her at the end of the day.
- Build a Reliable Routine – Part of separating without pain or overwhelming anxiety is the knowledge that you’ll be back, just like always. In order to help your child process that, make sure that there’s a reliable routine in place. The more your child knows what to expect and can depend upon each day to resemble the next, the less likely he is to panic.
- Don’t Get Bogged Down by Guilt – Leaving a howling child in the arms of a relative stranger is never a good feeling, but it’s important to understand that you’re not harming or neglecting your child by leaving her at school or with a caregiver. Guilt will only make you feel worse, which will in turn exacerbate the anxiety for your child.
- Be Prepared for Setbacks – Just when it seems like your child is adjusting to her new routine, she has a new setback and you’re forced to start the process all over again. Be prepared for a few hiccups along the way, and understand that these situations are normal.
- Know the Signs of Severe Anxiety – There’s separation anxiety, which is a normal part of your child’s development, and then there’s the more serious side of that developmental coin, separation anxiety disorder. Separation anxiety disorder strikes approximately 4% of kids, usually between the ages of seven and nine, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Excessive anxiety, extreme homesickness and refusal to separate from a loved one calmly are all symptoms of this medical condition, and are signs that you should consult with his pediatrician or family doctor.