Mother and toddler separation anxiety

Socialisation, greater mobility and a growing vocabulary all prepare children for life changes. These transitions can be hard on both sides. A parent watches from the sidelines in angst, fearful that her child will fall over after taking those first few steps on her own. A child begins to feel sad when she has to say goodbye to a friend after a particularly fun play date.

Separation and anxiety

Separation is a challenge when children become intensely anxious about leaving a parent or caregiver. Some anxiety is normal and even expected. Separation is harder to manage when the anxiety becomes more intense, long-lasting and ongoing. The child who doesn't want to go to day care is a common example. Your child may go to great lengths to stay at home with you.

How to help your child

Keep in mind that problems with separation often arise during developmental transitions like sleeping in a 'big girl/boy bed' or adjusting to a new little brother or sister.

  • Ask her to share her feelings Young children don't necessarily have the verbal skills to directly share their experiences, so have your child play or draw to learn more about her feelings.

  • Observe Take note of when the intense reaction occurs. The reactions that you see in your child can guide you in efforts to manage difficult separation situations. Some children, for instance, have no problem saying goodbye after an activity or event is over. For others, the departure is tearful and painful. Identifying when separation comes up for your child is one way to be ready to respond when it does occur.

  • Leave quickly If your child is staying with a babysitter for the first time, a good rule in this situation is to try to make your departure a quick one with one solid goodbye that your child will hear. This way she'll know that you have left and will be able to transition from knowing you are there, watching you go and adjusting to being with the babysitter.

First day of school

Going to school for the first time is another important transition for children. Explore ways to make the transition easier. Meet soon-to-be-classmates and visit the school the summer before to minimise the fear of the unknown. Many nursery or pre-schools have phase-in programmes where parents attend school with their children at the beginning of the year.

How to help yourself

  • Consider your own issues If your child gleefully leaves your embrace and runs to the classroom the minute you get to school, do you find yourself wondering, 'Wait a minute! Is it that easy for her to say goodbye?' While this is a normal, human reaction, it is important to think about whether the parent's own separation issues influence the child's.

  • Develop a ritual This can be as simple as waving goodbye and blowing kisses to one another. Another tip is to plan a fun activity with your little one when you're reunited.

Remember this: growing up is hard to do, for children and their parents!

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