Mom giving advice to child before school

You may have noticed your child becoming rather clingy as of late. They may start crying uncontrollably when you leave them with a relative as you go to work, take a quick trip to the store, or even when you just go to the next room for a few minutes. You dread to think of what might happen when your child starts going to preschool.

This separation anxiety, this unease with being away from you, is a normal part of your child’s development. Nonetheless, it can be stressful not only for your child, but for you, as well. Understanding what you and your child are experiencing can help you both get through it together.

What Is Separation Anxiety and Why Does It Happen?
While your child may be attempting to exert their independence more and more, at the same time, they realize how dependent they are on you. As they become increasingly aware of their surroundings, they may recognize that some places, people, and situations are unfamiliar to them, and these strange, new things might make them feel unsafe1. And because you, their parents, are the ones they have the strongest relationship with, they may feel quite upset when you’re not around.

Separation anxiety is a temporary phase. How long it lasts varies from child to child, but normally, it peaks around the age of three. Children will outgrow it as they become more independent, and come to understand that when their parents leave, they will return in due time2.

Tips for Easing Separation Anxiety

  • Timing is key. As much as possible, time your separation to avoid any other factors that might make your child’s anxiety worse. Are they hungry? Are they cranky because it’s nap time? Is this normally a time you spend together? Take these into account to make sure they are in a good mood.
  • Practice. Encourage socialization by introducing your child to caregivers or relatives as early as possible. If you will be having a relative babysit them, ask the relative to come over and spend some time just bonding with your child. If your child will be starting preschool, try to visit the school together a few times before school starts. A little familiarization will go a long way3.
  • Happy goodbyes. You may be feeling a little sad or anxious yourself when you leave your child. But as much as possible, say your goodbyes in a happy and cheerful way. If your child senses your negative emotions, it might trigger their anxieties4.
  • Keep it short and sweet. Make your goodbyes short. If you draw them out, you might draw out your child’s anxiety as well!
  • Set expectations and keep your promises. Tell your child when you will return in terms they can understand. If you’ll be back in the afternoon, perhaps say, “I’ll come pick you up after your nap.” If you’ll be out of town for a few days, try, “Mommy will be back after two sleeps.” You may also tell them what you plan to do when you get back, so they have something to look forward to. Will you go out for ice cream? Will you have a surprise for them when you return? Then, follow through on your promise.

Are YOU Feeling Separation Anxiety?
You may have your own misgivings about leaving your child in someone else’s care — even if only for a short time. This may be especially true during the first few times, or if your child has a habit of throwing tantrums when you leave. It’s perfectly normal to feel a mixture of fear, guilt, and anxiety. Keep in mind that preparing your child for these short-term separations helps develop their coping skills and sense of independence. This will only serve to further your child’s social development and deepen your bond of trust with them.

When to Seek Professional Help
If you find that your child’s separation anxiety is not getting any better — if the frequency, or intensity of episodes have not lessened, or if they persist beyond the age of four or five — it may be best to consult with a professional. Other signs may include refusing to go to school, avoiding social activities such as sports, or outright refusal to separate from their parents5.

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References:

1 Effective discipline for children. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2719514/
2 Toward a Life Span Theory of Close Relationships: The Affective Relationships Model. https://www.karger.com/Article/PDF/83215
3 What’s the Best Way to Discipline My Child? https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/communication-discipline/Pages/Disciplining-Your-Child.aspx
4 Discipline and children. https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/HealthyLiving/discipline-and-children
5 The Most Effective Parenting Style for Discipline that Works. https://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/discipline-topics/effective-parenting-style-discipline-works/