Raising kids is a high-stakes responsibility. Let’s be honest – when we enter parenthood, we are really just trying our best with the little information, experience and natural intuition we have. Often, we don’t know what we are doing. This is why the journey of parenthood (along with our access to social media and google) can become a breeding ground for feelings of guilt and inadequacy.
We’ve all had plenty of those moments where the only explanation is “I must be doing something wrong”.
One of the major contributors to this feeling is separation anxiety. That part of a child’s life when they basically freak out as soon as Mom isn’t around. This seems to be their thought process…
“Mommy left the room”
“Mommy is somewhere else”
“I want to be with Mommy”
(cue loud uncontrollable crying) – which, by the way, is the only way they know how to communicate
That heartbreaking cry leaves us as parents to wonder, “Am I doing something wrong?” After all, a well-adjusted child should probably feel safe when they’re separated from their parents for a little while, shouldn’t they? You probably know several moms who will tell you their child doesn’t cry when left with a sitter or that they are perfectly happy to play by themselves at home.
Two things to keep in mind.
First, never compare yourself, or your child, to the mothers and babies around you. Especially those described in the parenting groups on social media. We all know how dangerous that comparison game can get.
Second, separation anxiety is completely normal, expected, and a sign of a healthy attachment between parent and child.
So 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”. This is defined as “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed.” So out of sight no longer means out of mind. As your baby begins to grasp this concept, they realize that if you (their favorite person in the whole world) are not there, you are somewhere else. Not only that, but your baby doesn’t know when/if you will be coming back.
It’s kind of fascinating when you think about it, but it’s also a little bit heartbreaking. This realization, for a baby, is obviously cause for full-blown panic. The thought of a parent leaving and not returning causes anxiety in most grown-ups I know, so you can hardly expect an infant to handle it well.
That is what is happening in your little one’s brain when they suddenly start having a fit every time you leave the room. It’s normal, it’s natural, and it’s a sign that your little one is learning, and that they have a secure attachment to their parent. Awesome. But, as many of us know, it also means that leaving them with a sitter or dropping them off at day care can be an absolute horror show.
As a parent, our true question here isn’t “What’s causing it?”, it’s “How do I prevent this?”. Right? But if you are honest with yourself, are you sure you want it to go away? Wouldn’t you be just a little devastated if you left your child with a stranger and they were just completely OK with it? “Bye Mom! See you at dinner! Don’t worry about me. You guys have fun!” I’m guessing that would actually be significantly more troubling than some tears and howling.
Regardless, we obviously want to keep things at a happy medium, and if you’re struggling with a child who’s pitching an absolute fit every time you try to run an errand or head out for date night, I’ve got some suggestions to take the edge off until this phase has run its course.
1. Lead by Example Your little one follows your cues. If you’re not willing to let her out of your sight, she may start to feel like she’s not safe if you’re not in the room. So designate a room where your baby can explore a little and play without your direct supervision. It’s a small adjustment, but it has a tremendous effect.
2. Don’t Avoid It Learning about separation and reunion is an important milestone, so don’t just take the path of least resistance and stay with your child 24/7 until they go off to school. Let them know that it’s okay for them to get upset when you leave and reassure them that you’ll always come back. If there are some tears around it, that’s alright. This is an important concept that they need to get on board with.
3. Start Slow Once you are ready to take the plunge, make it a short outing. Don’t plan on dinner and a movie or an overnighter for the first few attempts.
4. Start With Someone Familiar Kids typically do a little 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 favor and plan to spend at least an hour away from the house for the first few attempts.
5. Make it a Smooth Transition After your sitter, parent, friend, or whoever is watching your little one arrives, hang around for 20-30 minutes before leaving. Seeing you interact with this other adult will go a long way in reassuring your child that they’re worthy of their trust as well.
6. No Sneaking Out We’ve all done it. It seems easier to attempt to sneak out when our baby is distracted. After all, it’s the goodbye that provokes the reaction, right? Maybe. But even if it does provoke some 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. It’s about building trust. If your only method of leaving is sneaking out, this will cause more anxiety for them. After all, they will never know when you might suddenly disappear.
7. Establish a Routine Much like bedtime, a solid, predictable goodbye routine helps your little one recognize and accept the situation. Don’t make it too long or drawn out. 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.
8. Speak in Terms They’ll Understand Instead of telling them how long you’ll be gone, tell them when you’ll be back in regards to their schedule. 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, but you can definitely do your part in managing the situation.
Let me be clear. These techniques are suggested for kids who are dealing with ordinary, everyday separation anxiety. There is also a condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder which is obviously more serious and warrants a trip to your pediatrician if you suspect your little one might be afflicted with it. But for run-of-the-mill fit-pitching when you try to leave the house, these tips should go a long way toward remedying the problem.
Be consistent, supportive, assertive, and calm. Before long, your child will understand the concept of you leaving and coming back!