Dealing with Separation Anxiety
Babies feel insecure when they cannot see and hear their parents or primary caregivers. Whether this absence is measured in minutes or days, it can lead to separation anxiety in babies and toddlers. Babies who feel anxious do so because of an underlying fear that their caregiver will not return from a physical absence.
Why is separation anxiety natural and normal?
A baby's entire existence depends on the love and care provided by the parent or caregiver. If that person is not there, even for a minute, it's perfectly natural for a baby to feel distressed. Certain societies raise children to be more autonomous and start separation tactics fairly early, while others rarely let children out of their sight in the early years. But no matter which culture you belong to, your small child is likely to feel some level of separation anxiety.
What are the signs of separation anxiety?
Typical signs include crying, whiny behavior, clinginess, and unwillingness to let their caregiver or parent out of sight (yes some parents even need to resort to their toddler coming into the bathroom with them!). Some children may become shy and stop talking when feeling separation anxiety, so much so that they won't go to a known relative (such as grandmother) any more.
At what age does separation anxiety happen?
Most kids go through two different stages of separation anxiety: one when they are really young at about 6 months, and another when they're older at about 18 months. Some children go through a third phase when they start pre-school. All stages are natural for your child. Your goal should be to help your child through each stage using tactics described below.
How can you help a child with separation anxiety?
While separation anxiety can be frustrating, both for the parent and the child, here are some tips to help your baby through this difficult time:
- Play a game of peek-a-boo to help babies understand that you're there even when you're not visible. Object permanence, as it is called, helps children understand that an object or a person (you) are still around and that they can still depend on you even when they can't see you.
- If you can't maintain visual contact, maintain auditory contact. Provide anxious babies with a running commentary of whatever it is you're doing so they understand that even though they can't see you, you're still there taking care of them.
- Introduce your baby to stay with other trusted people for short periods of time. Relationships develop over time with everyone, and babies are no different. Allow your child to naturally bond with new people, even extended family members. Children pick up cues from adults, so strive to always appear calm and relaxed when meeting new people you want your child to bond with so that they will understand that they can trust them.
- Consistency and routine is paramount for your child. Don't spring surprises on your baby. Babies like a set schedule, and any deviation may set off their anxiety. Make sure you leave the house at roughly the same time everyday for errands, and ensure that you use the same baby sitter the first two years if possible, etc.
- Take baby steps in introducing your child to the (big bad) world. Start by gradually introducing your baby to places you visit, such as a friend's house, grandma and grandpa's place, a daycare you want to send him/her to eventually, etc. For each outing, talk about the experience with your child in soft soothing (and when appropriate, excited) tones. Encourage your baby to understand that these places are safe for him/her to be in without you.
- Talk to your toddler about an upcoming separation and what you expect the child to do. Some kids aged 18 months can pay attention to what you're saying and will naturally want to please you and come up to your expectations. Keep your expectations simple, but clear.
- Encourage independence, but ensure safety. If your toddler wanders off on their own to explore, keep an eye from a distance, and ensure that they're in a baby safe environment.
- Don't let separations happen at a sensitive time, such as when children are apt to be cranky for some other reason such as hunger or sleep.
- Don't linger at goodbyes. Prolonged goodbyes make children feel that you're anxious to leave them and, therefore, they should be concerned. Make leaving a non-event – a simple kiss and wave should do.
All the above activities are aimed at establishing trust with your baby. When your baby trusts you, they will naturally have fewer fears and anxieties. You can become trustworthy by always keeping your promises and always showing up when you say you will. Be as honest as possible with a child this young: when they learn to trust that your actions always match your words, they will feel comforted and secure.