Anxiety over separation anxiety

Sep 27, 2012 at 1:00 p.m. ET

Is your child’s separation anxiety causing you anxiety? Are you becoming more and more anxious over leaving because you know what's coming: She'll cling to your leg and explode into a fit of tears?

What can you do short of never leaving the house again?

Determine how much anxiety your child has and why

Elizabeth Berger, M.D, a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist says the first step is to figure out the level of your child's separation anxiety. "Separation anxiety is a very different thing in an 8- month-old and in a first grader, and is a very different thing in a child who is scowling for three minutes and one who is shrieking for 20."

Berger says, "Moms should grasp the cognitive level with which the child is able to understand separation as well as the depth, intensity, and persistence of the child's personal reaction to separation."

Berger suggests:

Get good intel: Ask the nursery school teacher or babysitter to measure how long it takes the child to settle down after a difficult separation from Mom and whether (overall) the child then appears generally cheerful, apathetic, energetic, clingy to others, angry or withdrawn.
Consider the big picture: Take stock of the child's general temperament, the child's general adaptability to transitions, and the possible sources of stress in the child's life such as illness, divorce, new siblings and/or other losses and problems.

To sneak out or not to sneak out? — that is the question

Although it might be easier on you, across the board, experts seem to agree that sneaking out is the easy way out. It might "seem" easier because Mom isn't faced with tears and the child doesn't get upset, but in the long run, it isn't what's best for establishing trust and good communication.

But why? Isn't it true that a child won't remember you left?

Carl Grody, MSW, says to think of it this way: "As adults, how do we feel when someone sneaks out without saying goodbye? We feel bad and wonder why that happened just like toddlers do, but toddlers don't have the life experience to make sense of it."

Grody adds, "When a parent sneaks out, the child notices and remembers that their parent just disappeared. How can they be sure the parent is coming back, and how can they be sure the parent won't just disappear again? That makes them feel less secure and leads to more separation anxiety, not less. When a parent tells the child they're leaving and that they'll be back, they build trust and confidence in the child when they do exactly what they promised."

There is an exception to the 'no sneaking out rule,' according to Berger. "A child who does not yet speak and reason cannot understand the difference between your disappearing into a walk-in closet for 10 seconds and your disappearing into another galaxy forever. Mom has just disappeared, and thus the child's panic is harder for both the child and for Mom to manage and counteract. Saying goodbye to a smaller youngster (who is too little to reason it out) is therefore not necessarily helpful or necessary."

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If sneaking away is the wrong way, then how can you make the transition easier?

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., gives these tips:

  • Role play these separations: Mom going to work, and saying see you soon! Child getting busy with friends. Then switch roles so sometimes your child plays the mommy or daddy who is going to work. And then coming back. This will really reinforce the idea that on the other side of separations are happy reunions.
  • Create a one-liner which your child can repeat after you: For instance, you can say, 'Moms always come back!' Say it with a smile and say — 'now your turn, what do we know about Moms?'
  • Practice brief separations early and often. Go for frequent practice with small separations (Mom going out to get the mail, Mom going to walk the dog around the corner) rather than occasional practice with higher degree of difficulty separations (Mom and Dad out past bedtime).
  • Create 'good' goodbyes: A fun routine of hugs and kisses or telling a joke or asking a question like, 'what's your favorite animal today?' or even, 'let's pretend we are penguins today,' and say goodbye like penguins!
  • Keep your goodbye short and sweet — the more you prolong the goodbye the longer it will take for your child to start adjusting.
  • Get busy after the goodbye: Help your child transition to a fun activity.

More on separation anxiety

Prepare your child for preschool during the summer
When big sister goes to school
How to make daycare drop off easier without separation anxiety