How to Ease a Child’s Separation Anxiety

by Donne Davis on May 14, 2010

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I felt empathy for my daughter the other day. She had to go to a meeting and my 3-year old granddaughter was having a serious case of separation anxiety. She clung to her mommy with the strength of Crazy Glue. First her happy smile turned to a pout, next came the pleading “don’t go,” and finally, she dissolved into tears. I could barely pry her off her mother’s shoulder and when I did, she screamed even louder. She was absolutely inconsolable. She’d never behaved like this before and neither had her older sister.

My daughter empathized with her saying, “I’ll be home for lunch and you can have fun with Baba while I’m gone.” But she just cried harder. I suggested we go out to the swing or play hide and seek or blow bubbles—all her favorites. She wanted none of it—just her mama. Finally, my daughter had to leave and for the first time in my seven-year “grandma career,” I had to restrain my granddaughter to keep her from running out the door after my daughter.

I felt completely helpless and surprised, too. My heart broke for Amelia and at the same time I was puzzled by her new behavior. She and I are best buds but at this particular moment, I wasn’t a good enough substitute. I comforted her and told her I knew how much she missed her mama and she’d be back soon.

Then I grabbed her “nakey” plastic baby and asked the doll: “Would you like to take a bath?” Baby answered yes, so I asked Amelia if she’d like to help me give baby a bath. She sniffled and shook her head but then followed me into the bathroom while I filled the basin with lots of sudsy bubbles.

I wanna do it,” she said and took baby out of my hands and put her into the basin. Within moments the tears were gone and we spent the next hour happily engaged in water play, making a complete mess of the bathroom. I figured my daughter would forgive us since it solved the problem.

When my daughter returned a few hours later, she was relieved to hear that the meltdown lasted less than five minutes. Amelia smiled proudly when I told her what a big girl she was for making herself feel better, even though she missed her mommy so much. It was a profound experience for me to be able to soothe my granddaughter’s episode of separation anxiety.

Resources on Separation Anxiety

When I got home, I researched the subject and discovered a wonderful website, Helpguide, with information about separation anxiety and many other health and family issues. Here’s some of what they have to say:

A little separation anxiety is part of a child’s normal development. It can occur from as early as five months and resurface out of the blue until a child is four years old. This kind of behavior can actually be a positive sign because it shows that the child recognizes and has formed important attachments with loved ones.

Helpguide suggests the following steps for easing normal separation anxiety:

  • Practice separation. Leave your child with a caregiver for brief periods and short distances at first.
  • Schedule separations after naps or feedings. Babies are more susceptible to separation anxiety when they’re tired or hungry.
  • Develop a “goodbye” ritual. Rituals are reassuring and can be as simple as a special wave through the window or a goodbye kiss.
  • Keep familiar surroundings when possible and make new surroundings familiar. Have the sitter come to your house. When your child is away from home, let him or her bring a familiar object.
  • Have a consistent primary caregiver. If you hire a caregiver, try to keep him or her on the job.
  • Leave without fanfare. Tell your child you are leaving and that you will return, then go—don’t stall.
  • Minimize scary television. Your child is less likely to be fearful if the shows you watch are not frightening.
  • Try not to give in. Reassure your child that he or she will be just fine—setting limits will help the adjustment to separation.

According to Helpguide, kids with anxious parents may be more prone to separation anxiety. In order to help your child overcome separation anxiety disorder, you may need to take measures to become calmer and more centered yourself. They suggest trying some of the following strategies to keep your stress in check:

  • Talk about your feelings. Expressing what you’re going through can be very cathartic, even if there’s nothing you can do to alter the stressful situation.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity plays a key role in reducing and preventing the effects of stress.
  • Eat right. A well-nourished body is better prepared to cope with stress, so be mindful of what you eat.
  • Practice relaxation. You can control your stress levels with relaxation techniques like yoga, deep breathing, or meditation.
  • Get enough sleep. Feeling tired will only increase your stress, causing you to think irrationally or foggily.
  • Keep your sense of humor. The act of laughing helps your body fight stress in a number of ways.

See also: 9 Parent-Tested Ways to Ease Separation Anxiety

{ 1 comment }

Susan Adcox May 17, 2010 at 11:30 am

Interesting post. I wonder why some children have such a hard time with separation, and others don’t. My son hated being left. His sisters minded only occasionally. And I’ve been around children who would have happily gone home with the letter carrier.

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