• Martha Lewis

8 Tips for Easing Separation Anxiety

Raising kids is a high-stakes responsibility. In this age of social media and easy access to information, parents are easily overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. As a sleep consultant, I see this all the time from parents whose babies aren’t sleeping well.

One of the other major contributors to the, “I’m doing something wrong,” sensation is separation anxiety. You know what I mean. The challenging part of a child’s life when they start to completely flip their lids whenever Mom’s not around.

The thought process, it would appear is one of...

  • Mommy’s not in the room.

  • So, Mommy is somewhere else.

  • I would prefer to be there with her.

  • Make that happen, or mark my words, I will raise the most unimaginable of ruckuses. And those ruckuses leave us, as parents, to wonder, “Am I doing something wrong?

A well-adjusted child should feel safe when they’re separated from their parents for a little while. Shouldn’t they? I mean, Beth from the office says her baby is perfectly content being left with her sitter, even overnight. And that one mom in your Facebook group said that her baby will happily play by herself for hours at a time. She actually takes her toys to her room occasionally to get a little ‘me’ time.”

Two things to keep in mind:

First, never compare yourself, or your child, to the mothers and babies in parenting groups on social media. Like everything else online, these experiences are almost always conveyed through rosy lenses.

And second, separation anxiety is completely normal, expected, and a sign of a healthy attachment between parent and child.

So what is it, exactly?

Separation anxiety typically starts to occur around 6-8 months of age. When your little one starts to realize that things continue to exist, even when they’re not in sight. It’s a cognitive milestone known as “object permanence.” Object permanence is defined as, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed.”

In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind.

So your baby begins to realize that if you, their favorite person in the whole world, are not there, you’re elsewhere. And, hey, wait a minute. If that’s the case, then you might not be coming back.

It’s kind of fascinating when you think about it, but it’s also a little heartbreaking. This realization, for a baby, is obviously cause for full-blown panic. The thought of a parent leaving and not returning causes anxiety in most grown-ups I know. So you can hardly expect an infant to take it with great decorum.

That’s what happens in your little one’s brain when they start having a fit every time you leave the room. It’s normal, it’s natural, and it’s a sign that your little one is learning. It's also a sign that they have a secure attachment to their parent. Awesome.

But, as many of us know, it also means that leaving them with a sitter or dropping them off at day care can be an absolute horror show.

But what we really want to know isn’t “What’s causing this?.” What I wanted to know was, “How do I prevent it?”

Well, the truth is, you wouldn’t want to if you could. Wouldn’t you be a little devastated if you left your child with a stranger and they were completely OK with it? “Bye Mom! See you at dinner!

Don’t worry about me. You guys have fun!”

I’m guessing that would actually be significantly more troubling than some tears and howling.

But we obviously want to keep things at a happy medium. If your child is pitching an absolute fit every time you try to run an errand or head out for date night, I’ve got some suggestions. These tips can take the edge off until this phase runs its course.

1. Lead by Example

Your little one follows your cues. So if you’re not willing to let her out of your sight, she probably feels like she's not safe if you’re not in the room. So choose a room where they can explore a little and play without your direct supervision. It’s a small change, but it has a tremendous effect.

2. Don’t Avoid It

Learning about separation and reunion is an important milestone. So don’t just take the path of least resistance and stay with your child 24/7 until they’re seven years old. (It happens. Believe me.) Let them know that it’s okay for them to get upset when you leave and reassure them that you’ll always come back when you do. If there are some tears around it, that’s alright. This is an important concept that they need to get on board with.

3. Start Slow

Make it a short outing. Don’t plan on dinner and a movie or an overnighter for the first few attempts.

4. Start With Someone Familiar

Kids typically do a little better when they're left with a grandparent or family friend. Especially if they’ve already spent some time with them they’ve grown to trust them a little. So call in a favor and put some wine in the fridge. Plan to spend at least an hour away from the house for the first few attempts.

5. Stick Around for a While

After the familiar person arrives, plan to hang around for a half hour or so. Seeing you with this person will reassure your child that they’re “good people” and worthy of their trust.

6. Face the Music

Many of us have attempted to distract our toddlers and then sneak out the door without saying goodbye. After all, it’s the goodbye that provokes the reaction, right? But even if it provokes some tears, it’s important for your child to understand that you’re going to leave sometimes. Then you can show them that you’ll be back when you say you will.

7. Establish a Routine

Much like bedtime, a solid, predictable goodbye routine helps your little one recognize and accept the situation. A set number of kisses and hugs, a memorable key phrase, and a clear sign of when you’ll be back should be just the right balance of short and reassuring.

8. Speak in Terms They Understand

Instead of telling them how long you’ll be gone, tell them when you’ll be back in regards to their schedule. After nap time, before bed, after dinner, before bath time, and so on.

Nothing is going to prevent your child from getting a little bit upset when you leave. (And thank the stars for that.) But you can definitely keep the fuss to a minimum.

Now, these techniques are for kids who are dealing with ordinary, everyday separation anxiety. There is also a condition called Separation Anxiety Disorder. This disorder is obviously more serious and warrants a trip to your pediatrician if you suspect this in your little one.

Use these tips for run-of-the-mill fit-pitching when you try to leave the house for an hour or two. They should go a long way towards remedying the problem. Be consistent, supportive, assertive, and calm. Before long, your child will understand the concept of you leaving and coming back.

In fact, this concept that will also come in handy when you start to leave them alone in high school.

“I’m leaving for the night, but rest assured, I’m coming back. So you remember that before you invite your rowdy friends over.”

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Martha Lewis, MS

Jackson Hole, WY



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