One of the hallmarks of good parenting is being around to witness your child’s growth and development, as well as being there to cuddle and care for them as much as you can. But there will come a time when you will not be around your little one 24/7. It will happen when you start a new job, or your child attends daycare or preschool. Thus, you may need preparation to deal with separation anxiety, which is one of the challenges that may come with these life events.
Experts say having difficulty separating from parents or caregivers is expected in early childhood. However, if your child’s fear and anxiety interfere with their behavior or anticipation of the separation, it triggers symptoms like headaches or stomach aches. This fear could turn into a disorder.
As a parent, prioritize addressing your child’s concerns and finding ways to make them feel at ease. If your child experiences separation anxiety, here is how to help your little one feel their best.
Do Some Practice Runs
If your child starts school or daycare in a couple of weeks, take some time to do practice runs to ease your child’s anxiety. Enlist the help of a few trusted friends or relatives to do this, and leave your child with them for about 30 minutes while you run a quick errand.
Do this a few more times, then as your little one gets used to the brief separation, gradually increase the time to 40 minutes, then an hour. Doing so helps them understand that no matter how long you will be gone, you will always come back to be with them again.
Give Your Child Something to Look Forward To
Most kids associate mommy or daddy with fun and comfort; being away from a parent can make them sad or afraid. To ease their worries, give your little one something to look forward to once you’re reunited.
For instance, you can plan to play in the park after picking them up from daycare or go to the grocery so you can choose some yummy snacks. Tell your child about your plans, and tell them you look forward to spending time with them after school or daycare. Make sure to follow through with your plans, though – this fosters trust, which is essential when helping your child cope with separation anxiety. Experts enforce celebrating your child’s small victories, including handling the separation appropriately.
Introduce a Comfort Item to Ease Separations
Very young children may need a comfort item to help them feel at ease while away from their parents or primary caregiver. When anxious or scared, observe your toddler if they tend to hold or cuddle a particular object, such as a blanket or a plushy. Bring this item and leave it with your little one before you go.
Meanwhile, how a parent says goodbye may trigger a child’s separation anxiety. Try giving them a tiny plush on a keychain, which they can attach to their backpack. Matching fabric or friendship bracelets and a customized family photo keychain also work. Likewise, a picture of your family pet in a locket is a cute reminder of home. As a bonus, these comfort items may help your little one to make friends as they can show them to classmates and talk about their loved ones at home.
Make Goodbyes Short, Simple, and Positive
Sometimes, how a parent says goodbye may trigger a child’s separation anxiety. Instead of lingering by the door or having a prolonged goodbye ritual, kiss them on the cheek and say bye, or drop them off and wave through the window while telling your little one that you will see them later.
You can also create a fun yet brief goodbye ritual to keep fears at bay. Try stacking your hands like you are about to start playing a game, then say, “Go Team (your last name)!” It reinforces the idea that your family is always united, and though you may go your separate ways for the day, you will always come back together later on.
Make Them Feel Excited About Change
If your child cannot bear being away from you, consider helping them reframe how they think about changes in your routine. For example, if they start school, focus on something other than that you will be separated for a few hours each day. Instead, make them feel excited about school and all the new experiences that they will have.
A few weeks before school starts, try going on a drive to the school grounds so they can see what it looks like and what kind of cool things are in it. Point out the playground, the classrooms, and all the other children they can make friends with. If you can, request a tour of the school grounds, then say something that will make them look forward to going, such as, “Wow, buddy, this is such a cool place, and you are gonna have a lot of fun here!”
You may also want to involve them in the school prep process so they can feel empowered. Go back-to-school shopping and let them pick out their school bag, lunch box, pencil case, clothes, and other necessary stationery. Show them how to use these items so they do not feel anxious.
It is usual for children to experience separation anxiety since some life events can bring about changes that can be stressful for little ones. But with the tips above, you can make your little one feel better about your temporary separation and help them grow to become more independent in the future.
Sandra Chiu works as Director at LadyBug & Friends Daycare and Preschool.