Separation anxiety

By Dr. Batya L. Ludman, Psy.D., FT · Published August 9, 2013

Our eyes met and we waved goodbye as the elevator doors closed. I was heading to work and he was off to enjoy the day with his beloved nanny. Leaving someone you love is difficult; whether you or they are a child or an adult. If you are an important person in someone's life, your departure won't make them feel happy. I knew my son would be sad when I left but also knew he'd be happily playing, having forgotten about me, by the time I reached the street. Thus, each morning, we said goodbye with a kiss, hug, three waves and then a blown kiss as the elevator door closed. Routine is important--for both children and adults! Games, like peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek, help children learn that people disappear only to later reappear. As parents, our job is to let our children know that while we may go away, we are predictable: we return and are there for them.

How we separate from, or leave, our children helps determine how they'll go off to bed at night, and to gan, their first day of school, a play date, a sleepover and even the army. It also influences how we feel when we exit the room after putting them to sleep, leave the house at night, drop them off in the morning, and focus on our work when we are away from them. So in large part, how we behave, coupled with their own little personalities, helps contribute to their success at "separating" and ultimately the rest of the family's happiness. Thus, it is not so unusual for me to see children, adolescents and even adults presenting with symptoms of anxiety related to separation. Here are some suggestions for making departures easier:

Consistency is critical to helping your child deal with issues around separation. Say what you mean and mean what you say and he'll come to understand that you'll be there to help meet his needs. This enables him to relax, and feel happy and secure. Don't tell a child not to worry. He doesn't do it purposely or to provoke you, although at times it may feel like it. Validation of his fears and gentle reassurance provide comfort and enable him to safely share his concerns. You may not always understand your child's concerns and while they may seem silly or irrational to you, to him they are very real. When you take a child to a new place, prepare him in advance that if he needs you, you will stay until you feel he will be okay. This doesn't mean that you will stay the whole day, week or year. He may have to endure some discomfort, as new experiences can be daunting for anyone. Knowing your child, you can determine if he needs you there in the room, close by, or not at all. Leave for increasingly longer periods of time as you see him coping better. Don't drag out your departure. When you do leave, always tell him you are going, and if he is a child who has difficulty with transitions, give him a warning a few minutes in advance. No one likes things sprung on them. Never, ever, leave without telling him or try to sneak away when you see he is distracted, because you know that otherwise he will cry or protest. This is critical to his feeling secure. If he never knows when you'll leave, he may feel that he always has to watch for your unannounced departure. Why, then, would he think you will come back or be there for him at the end of the day? When you do leave, tell him approximately when you'll return: "when the bell rings", "after your bath", "when Mr. Sun comes up", etc. These enable him to link your return to an event. Upon returning, ask about what he did during your time away and praise his maturity or his chosen activity. Never say things like, "I was so worried about you" or "I missed you so much", as this gives him the sense that he shouldn't leave you as you may not be okay, and he may need to worry about you. Be aware of the language you use in front of your child. Stating you are "dead tired", "scared to death", "worried sick" or that you "missed him more than he could ever imagine", may ferment and grow in a young child's mind. The more your child can plan or predict, the less anxious he'll feel. Having a general daily routine of mealtime, playtime and bath time lets him figure out what comes next. Create a bedtime routine or ritual that will enable him to calm down after his day, know what is coming next and contentedly let you leave his room. With respect to sleep, how you put your child to sleep will often determine his waking habits at night. All kids wake at night but don't signal others unless they can't find their pacifier, breast, bottle or Mommy to soothe them. Therefore a child from early on should be put into his crib awake, after a bedtime routine. He needs to learn to self-soothe. Many parents fear they are psychologically damaging their child by allowing him to cry. "Some" crying may indeed be necessary while you are giving him the gift of learning how to sleep through the night or stay in his own room. Of course, if you don't mind your child getting out of bed several times a night or sleeping with you, a bedtime routine will be less important. It's often easier for your child to leave you than for you to leave him, as this way he feels in control. He'll have greater difficulty being left when he's tired, hungry, unwell or upset. If you're a worrier, don't transfer your anxiety to your child. Share your concerns with a friend or seek professional help for yourself and your child. When your fears are dealt with, everyone will be happier.

There is a delicate balance between enabling your child to feel secure and encouraging independence. Once he wouldn't let you out of his sight, isn't it wonderful when you get to see him go off happily without you.