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Published on January 04, 2016

Fears and tears: What to do about separation anxiety

It might happen when grandma or auntie arrives to babysit. The first day of preschool. Or just one day out of the blue when you’re dropping off at day care for the hundredth time. That sweet little face puckers up, arms reach out wildly for you, and WAAAAA!!

Why is this happening, and why now? “Separation anxiety is a normal developmental step that can happen anytime,” said Rochelle Boote, MD, Pediatrician at Avera Medical Group 69th and Cliff. However, there are three key times when it’s most likely to crop up: at 6 to 9 months; during toddlerhood at 15 to 18 months; and around age 4 to 5, when a child is going to school for the first time.

At the 6 to 9 month range, babies are becoming more self-aware. They are recognizing faces. They are developing relationships that go beyond just needing someone to feed them or put them to bed.

“Separation anxiety is a sign that babies are forming strong and lasting attachments to the important people in their lives – like mom and dad,” said Doniese Wilcox, Certified Family Life Educator at Avera McKennan Hospital & University Health Center.

“Instead of worrying and doing anything to make the crying stop, it’s a good time to teach baby how to handle the coming independence of toddlerhood, and to move away from mom and dad and explore her world,” Wilcox said.

For babies, Wilcox and Boote recommend the following steps.

  • Practice. Play peek-a-boo or a little game of hide and seek. Go away from baby for a few moments and come back. Hide a favorite toy under a blanket and help her find it.
  • Develop cues and routines. Say the same thing every time you leave, with a similar inflection: “Mom is leaving now, but I’ll be back.” Give him a hug and a kiss. Smile. Perhaps have the babysitter or grandma stand at the window and watch you leave, and wave goodbye. Leave baby with a security object, like a favorite toy, to hold. Then go.
  • Introduce new people gradually. Don’t just drop the baby off. Sit down and play with baby with the new person, so baby understands that the person is “OK,” and this new environment is a fun place.
  • Don’t do the disappearing act. Don’t just sneak away while baby isn’t looking. That teaches baby not to trust and be anxious about “when are you going to leave me again?”
  • Don’t come back to check. If the child sees you peeking in the door, it will start the cycle all over. When you’re gone, the child will start to form healthy attachments with whoever is caring for him, such as the babysitter or grandma.
  • Understand that crying is normal and healthy. When you’re upset, it makes baby feel less secure. When you give in to cries, and take the baby back in your arms, you’re teaching that the more she cries, the more time she gets with you. “Crying is an act to make mom and dad stay, and it’s a good one,” Boote said.
  • Have a happy reunion. When you return, smile, hug and kiss baby and say, “see, I came back.” Then, spend some happy time playing in the new environment so baby learns, “this is a great place. Dad likes it here too.”

With older kids, it can help to have them carry a special memento or picture. Talk through past separations and past successes. For example, on the first day of kindergarten remind the child, “Remember when you went to preschool last year and you loved it?”

Bedtime is a separation that often impacts older children. “They can smell the popcorn, they can hear the TV. They want to be with the family, too,” Wilcox said. Perhaps leave the bedroom door open a crack, and remind the child, “I’ll be sitting right here, thinking about you until you go to sleep, and you can think about me here while you’re in bed.”

Your child’s temperament plays a role. Nine traits define your child’s approach to life, and understanding these traits can help you match the parenting techniques that will work best with your child. For example, if your child is naturally slow to adapt and highly sensitive, he can be more prone to separation anxiety. You can get a free, confidential temperament questionnaire by emailing temperament@avera.org.

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