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Dealing With Separation Anxiety


Raising kids is a high-stakes responsibility, and in this age of social media and easy access to information about anything and everything, parents are easily overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and inadequacy. As a sleep consultant, I see this all the time from parents whose babies aren't sleeping well.

One of the other major contributors to the, "I'm doing something wrong," sensation is separation anxiety; that oh-so-challenging part of a child's life when they start to completely flip their lids whenever Mom or Dad is not around.

The thought process, it would appear, is one of...

  • Mommy's not in the room.

  • Therefore, Mommy is somewhere else.

  • I would prefer to be there with her.

  • Make that happen, or mark my words, I shall raise the most unimaginable of ruckuses.

And those ruckuses leave us, as parents, to wonder, "Am I doing something wrong? After all, a well-adjusted child should probably feel reasonably safe when they're separated from their parents for a little while, shouldn't they? I mean, Beth from the office says her baby is perfectly content being left with her sitter, even overnight. And that one mom in your Facebook group said that her baby will happily play by herself for hours at a time, and actually takes her toys to her room occasionally in order to get a little 'me' time."

Two things to keep in mind.

First, never compare yourself, or your child, to the mothers and babies described in the parenting groups on social media. Much like everything else on Facebook and Instagram, these experiences are almost always conveyed through the rosiest of lenses.

And second, separation anxiety is completely normal, expected, and a sign of a healthy attachment between parent and child.

So what is it, exactly?

Separation anxiety typically starts to occur around 6-8 months of age, when your little one starts to realize that things continue to exist, even when they're not in sight. It's a cognitive milestone known as "object permanence" which is defined as, "the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed."

In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind. So as your baby begins to grasp this concept, they realize that if you, their favorite person in the whole world, are not there, you're elsewhere. And, hey, wait a minute. If that's the case, then you might not be coming back.

It's kind of fascinating when you think about it, but it's also a little heartbreaking. This realization, for a baby, is obviously cause for full-blown panic. The thought of a parent leaving and not returning causes anxiety in most grown-ups I know, so you can hardly expect an infant to take it with great decorum.

Anyways, that's what happens in your little one's brain when they suddenly start having a fit every time you leave the room. It's normal, it's natural, and it's a sign that your little one is learning, and that they have a secure attachment to their parent. Awesome.

But, as many of us know, it also means that leaving them with a sitter or dropping them off at day care can be an absolute horror show.

But what we really want to know, or at least what I really wanted to know when it happened with my child, isn't "What's causing this?" What I wanted to know was, "How do I prevent it?"

Well, the truth is, you probably wouldn't want to if you could. I mean, really, wouldn't you be just a little devastated if you left your child with a stranger and they were just completely OK with it? "Bye Mom! See you at dinner! Don't worry about me. You guys have fun!"

I'm guessing that would actually be significantly more troubling than some tears and howling.

But we obviously want to keep things at a happy medium, and if you're struggling with a child who's pitching an absolute fit every time you try to run an errand or head out for date night, I've got some suggestions to take the edge off until this phase runs its course.

1. Lead by Example Your little one follows your cues, so if you're not willing to let her out of your sight, they probably, albeit unconsciously, feel like they're not safe if you're not in the room. So designate a room where they can explore a little and play without your direct supervision. It's a small adjustment, but it has a tremendous effect.

2. Don't Avoid It Learning about separation and reunion is an important milestone, so don't just take the path of least resistance and stay with your child 24/7 until they're seven years old. (It happens. Believe me.) Let them know that it's okay for them to get upset when you leave and reassure them that you'll always come back when you do. If there are some tears around it, that's alright. This is an important concept that they need to get on board with.

3. Start Slow Once your little one has started to demonstrate the understanding that they'll be spending some time with someone besides a parent, make it a short outing. Don't plan on dinner and a movie or an overnighter for the first few attempts.