Separation anxiety paid us a visit on Friday as my five year-old daughter suddenly wrapped her arms around my leg and cried when it was time for our hug and kiss goodbye at the door to her kindergarten classroom. I’d been rather expecting it, you see because in my experience her bouts with separation anxiety appear after the initial excitement evaporates.
It’s amazing that as your baby grows, he or she will become more and more independent – yet that independence also seems to come arm and arm with a companion bout of clinging. The clinging neediness is equal parts flattering and frustrating.
If you’ve ever tried to walk into the next room just to grab the phone, only to have your toddler pitch a fit and become very upset because you’re gone for a few seconds is burdensome. It’s a tightrope to walk because you are coping with the guilt his or her crying will inevitably provoke, but at the same time recognizing that your little one needs to get through this stage and build up his or her own confidence not only in you, but in themselves.
The question is – how do you do it?
The old answer of very carefully is what comes to mind. You see, you want to comfort them, but you should be careful not to over do it. You want to give support, but you have to be careful of overdoing that too. You also want to urge him or her to loosen their grip from you and you need to be careful about that.
Big fat help I am, huh?
Here are a few tips to help you balance your act on this tightrope, but truth be told – you are going into this one blind as you provide a little give and take to your toddler in their clinging phases. A word to the wise, as illustrated above – these phases come and go and they will continue until your infant is an adult. So these tips will hopefully help you out each time.
- Play games that teach object permanence – many babies have to learn that just because something disappears that doesn’t mean they are gone forever. I read a story once that said dogs think you die when you leave the house and that’s why they are so excited when you return – fortunately, dogs do understand object permanence – so I rather doubt they believe this. But your baby needs to learn that same understanding
- Make plenty of time for you and your baby – this is especially important whether you are a stay at home parent or a working one. You need to set aside time that it’s just the two of you where they can be made to feel special and they can enjoy themselves – be sure to includes lots of hugs, kisses, hand holding and sitting in the lap – the physical contact is as important in this phase as it was when your baby was a newborn
- Engage him or her in activities before you do other things – if you need to walk into the kitchen to do the dishes or if you need to make some phone calls or sit down at your desk and do some work, set your little one up with some games, a toy or even a movie – something that will engage their interest and minimizes how much your stepping away will impact them
- Working at home? Take a lot of breaks to offer hugs and to engage with them in a bit of play. For years, we kept my daughter’s playroom and office side by side, with no major separation so that she could always get to me, but she had plenty to do, but I was never very far away
- Offer reassurance and comfort, but put a cap on your own anxiety. It’s going to kill you the first time you have to leave them crying with a care giver or school teacher, no matter how strong or confident your resolve – that’s the face that your baby needs to never see. They need to see your love, your confidence and your support, your tone should be light and your smile warm and loving – this can bolster their own confidence
It’s not easy and it doesn’t get easier. When I left her crying in that classroom after a couple of moments of comfort, I felt every sob like a stab as I walked down the hallway. Every single time she’s gone through this, I’ve felt this way, but every time I’ve returned she’s not been the worse for it – it’s just reassured her that I meant what I said. I’d be there.
On Friday, when I picked her up from school – she ran to me and threw her arms around me and I picked her up into this big hug and big kiss. I asked her how her day was and she grinned and said: “I knew you were coming back, so it was great mommy.”
Separation anxiety is a difficult tightrope, but hang in there and both of you will make it to the other side just fine.