Young children get anxious when separated from their parents. It happens. Your child is used to your constant, watchful and caring presence for the first few years of his life, which means waving goodbye to mom or dad and letting someone else care for him can feel scary and dangerous. It’s normal for kids to cling and whine and even cry when you’re walking away, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to deal with.
For many parents, walking away while their child cries for them is a heart-wrenching experience. No one likes to hear their child in distress, and your instinct may be to run back to them, scoop them up and reassure them you’re not going anywhere. However, you can’t always be around to take care of your child - you have other needs to take care of, and it’s important for your child to learn how to feel safe and secure even if you’re not around. Here are some tips on dealing with your child’s separation anxiety.
Talk to your child about your plans
If you want your child to handle separation well, the best thing to do is to calmly and clearly explain to them why they’re being left in someone else’s care, who that someone else is, what you will be doing and when you will be back to pick them up again. Children may need a lot of reassurance that you will come back, but having a clear plan and purpose can reduce your child’s anxiety and fears that you’re going to drop them off with a stranger, turn around and never come back.
By explaining who their temporary caretaker is, they don’t feel like they’re being left with a stranger. Telling them why you’re leaving - such as the fact that you have to go to work every day because it’s your job and you can’t work virtually- reassures them that you aren’t just abandoning them because you’re sick of them, and telling them when you’re coming back reminds them that the separation is just temporary.
Get them occupied before you leave
Although you can spend all the time in the world reassuring your child that you aren’t abandoning them, he might still panic when he sees you walking out the door and waving goodbye. The simplest way to address this issue is to not leave this way. Rather than making your goodbye a big production between you and your child, sit them down, say your goodbyes and then purposefully engage them in an activity before you leave. Bring him to the caretaker and set him up with his daily tasks, or encourage him to join a group of children playing, before you say goodbye.
Don’t sneak out the door when they’re busy - if you leave without saying goodbye, you may inadvertently cause more anxiety once you’re gone. Say goodbye, but don’t dwell on the goodbye and don’t leave just after hugging your child and putting him down. By letting him get engaged, you allow him to feel safe in the environment before you remove yourself from the equation.
Don’t express concern over leaving them
The best thing you can do to keep your child calm when you leave them in someone else’s care is to not behave like you’re upset about the separation. Children take all their cues from us, which means if you’re distressed, tearful and emotional about leaving them behind, they’re going to feel like there is something to be worried about. They may worry you’re concealing something from them, such as the fact that you don’t plan on returning, or they may feel that your worry indicates that they too have something to fear from being left behind.
It’s natural to have some of your own parental anxiety about leaving a child behind, but you don’t want to reflect that anxiety onto your child. Put on a smile when you drop them off, stay chipper and don’t sound sad or scared to leave your kid behind. Treat it like a normal and safe occurrence, and he’ll get the message that everything’s alright.
It’s completely normal for children to show separation anxiety, and most will grow out of it. Staying patient, calm and understanding when your child panics can help you and your child work on addressing that anxiety and feeling safer in the care of another.