That dreaded moment… when you reluctantly peel your sobbing child off of your body, put on a brave face, and force a happy goodbye wave as you head out the door. We’ve all been there in that place, where we know rationally that our child will be just fine once we depart, but our hearts are simultaneously breaking when we see their distress. Separation Anxiety – It’s a very real and common developmental experience that babies and young children must navigate through. The good news is that it means you, as parents are doing something right. You have helped your child to form a healthy bond and attachment to you, which is why they react with sadness when you are out of sight. It’s a small consolation, I know, but it does mean that they are on track to being emotionally secure little human beings! Even with this bit of assurance that these behaviors are all very normal and will, over time, dissipate, it can still be very stressful and disconcerting as the parent to watch your little one experience such big feelings. The good news is that there are many ways in which you can help guide and support your child through this developmental stage. Read on to discover the strategies and techniques that will one day allow you both to experience the magic of The Happy Goodbye.
Tips to Try At Home:
- Make sure your child’s bedtime routine always includes quality time with both parents. Try alternating your roles each night so that one adult does bath on one night while the other does story and bedtime, and then reverse who does what the next night. This will allow your child to practice the mental flexibility of having different grown-ups doing different tasks within the safety of their own home. It also assures your child that they will have dedicated one on one time with each parent, which will be important for continuing to facilitate that healthy bond and attachment.
- Bedtime should be a soothing time for your child while they work on building their independence from you. If he or she needs extra snuggles and attention from you on some nights, that is okay. This is not the time to start sleep training! Remember that you only want to implement one big change at a time with children this age, so keep other areas of their life routine and predictable while you work on this separation anxiety piece.
- Allow your child to play independently in their crib after they wake up in the morning or from a nap rather than rushing right in to pick them up. Leave a few books or small toys on the top ledge of the crib so they have something to discover and explore after waking. This will help them to learn that independent time can be enjoyable too!
- There are some great shows and books that address this topic. Below are a few of my favorites: Daniel Tiger has an episode in which he learns about grown-ups leaving and coming back. Watch this show with your child, and then make a point of singing the episode’s song, “Grown-Ups Come Back” with your child at times when you might step into another room or go out to run an errand. Read The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. Talk about how you can also give your child a kiss on their hand just like Chester’s mom did so that they are never without you. Read The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. Talk about how you can also give your child a kiss on their hand just like Chester’s mom did so that they are never without you.
- Acknowledge and validate your child’s anxiety when they are feeling it rather than minimizing or dismissing it. Your words should convey to your child that their feelings are very normal and real, and at the same time, provide them with the reassurance that they will be able to work through this tough moment. Try using a calm voice and saying, “It’s okay to miss me, I understand how you feel. I’ll be excited to see you after school!”
Tips to Try at School:
- Ask your child’s teacher if you can bring in a family photo and have them display it in a place that your child can easily see in the classroom throughout the day. This will help your little one to feel a connection between their home and school worlds.
- Allow your child to carry a Transitional Item into school each day – this is something small but familiar that will help them to have the comfort of home with them throughout the day, such as a sock or a piece of a blanket. Spray some of your perfume or cologne on it as well so that he or she feels like you are close by!
- Create a Goodbye Ritual. This is something that you say or do in the same way at every drop-off. For example, “You are going to have so much fun at the Clubhouse today! Remember, ‘[sing] Grown-Ups Come Back!’ and mommy will be here to get you after you have your afternoon snack. I love you, have a great day!” Give each other a kissing hand, hug, and leave.
- Keep your demeanor during drop-off calm and relaxed. If you are anxious and weepy, your child will think there is something to fear. Model a calm and positive attitude for them so that they see that everything is okay.
- Be Consistent! If you tell your child that you’ll be there to pick them up after afternoon snack, make sure to arrive right on time, every time, so that they feel like their world is safe and predictable.
- Keep your good-byes brief and simple. Your child will quickly learn that their crying has the effect of keeping you there longer, so follow-your Good-bye Ritual and depart. As hard as it may be, keep a smile on your face, wave, and leave one time – do not come back for an additional hug or snuggle. Most children are just fine once their parents have left!
- In the beginning of this process, you may want to ask your child’s teacher to have an engaging and exciting activity waiting for them in the classroom at drop off time. This can further ease that transition into their new setting. Also, if your child continues to cry and ask for you during the day, have your child’s teacher reinforce the message you are sending by simply stating, “Mom will be back after snack time this afternoon. Now let’s go play with that new puzzle!” In this way, they will be both supporting what you told your child, and then redirecting their attention to something else.
A final word of advice… be sure to take some time to recognize your own feelings around this process. While this is hard on your child, it is also hard on you – and that is okay. Check those photos and videos on Brightwheel as many times as you need to as you work through the adult version of this separation anxiety. After all, it’s hard to be the one who goes from being the primary caregiver to now sharing part of that responsibility with someone outside of your home, and it can be difficult to override your own emotional response to your child being upset with your rational understanding that they are in fact safe, well cared for, and in very good and capable hands. Stay strong in knowing that while this stage is tough, when you reach the other side of it, you will have helped your child to gain the tools to feel confident and secure on their own! And now you can start sleep training…