When you’re dropping off your child at daycare or school, or leaving your little one with your sitter, you have a conflict when your child shows separation anxiety and tries to hold you up from leaving. As the parent, you know you need to attend to this anxious child, yet you also want to be on time.
Of course, peeling the child’s arms away from around your leg and then bolting for the door with the sound of anguished cries in your ears will only traumatize you both and make for a rotten day—and even more anxiety next time. Instead, use these tips to manage the situation, especially when separation anxiety happens frequently:
1. Build in extra time.
If your child has intense anxiety when you have to leave her, always allow at least a half hour of free time before you leave for work. This probably means getting up earlier, but it’s worth it.
2. Show understanding.
Listen to your crying child’s words of fear about you leaving her. Paraphrase the child’s message so she knows you listened and that you care. (“I know you’re upset I’m leaving the house now.”)
3. Share where you’re going.
Tell the child exactly where you’re going and when you will get there. Tell her you will send a quick text to her teacher or sitter when you arrive.
4. Give a return time.
Tell her when you’ll see her again. Let her know that you’re not leaving her, just going to work. Remind her how this happens every weekday and things have worked out fine before. Be on time when you reunite so that you instill trust.
5. Talk about plans for the day.
Distract the child a bit by asking about her day as it’s been planned, so that she thinks about not only where you’re going but also what she’ll be doing. This gives perspective to the anxious child.
6. Remain pragmatic.
Give a hug, but don’t prolong it. Be matter of fact about your leave-taking—like it’s nothing unusual and no different than any other day.
7. Offer praise.
Commend your child for collecting herself and understanding mommies and daddies need to be good workers and get to their jobs on time.
These general steps, if carried out calmly and objectively, soothe children because they put the leave-taking in perspective. Children might be deeply afraid that they’ll never see their parents again. Giving clear expectations of where and when you’re going and returning helps take away that fear. All children are different, but reminding them that they’ve been through this before and so can again is a useful perspective for children. Be gentle and calm, but clear and focused. That helps children follow your lead and calms them down as well.
If the child’s anxiety tends to spiral upwards as you’re talking, sit down with the child (remember, you’ve given yourself extra time) and, if he or she likes to be touched, put your arm around your child and help him or her breathe slowly with you to regain emotional control. Ask your child to talk more slowly and calmly, which triggers the rest of the body to calm down.
After you return home, discuss with the child what happened in the morning and how you’ll address it if it happens again. Depending on the age of the child, it may or may not be normal anxiety. If the child is older than 3, it’s outside the norm. If the separation anxiety is prolonged, consider seeking professional help.
We want our children to know that our leave-taking doesn’t mean we’re disappearing or leaving them alone forever. Remind them that they will be with a special, trusted adult while you’re gone. Prepare your caregiver for these contingencies, so that he or she is on hand to step in and take over.
Separation anxiety is an irrational fear of losing a parent. If there have been real incidents of loss in the family, this exacerbates the problem because the child’s fears have already been realized at some point. Should that be the case, point out in your evening discussion that going to work is not the same as when someone really leaves and doesn’t return. Normalize the daily life plans so the child knows what to expect each day like clockwork.
You will find that, by following these steps, you’ll be calmer in the face of your child’s angst, which will calm your child. You’ll find that your parent-child bond is strengthened in this process and your child will learn to trust—both key elements for healthy child development.
Laurie Hollman, Ph.D., is a psychoanalyst with specialized clinical training in infant-parent, child, adolescent, and adult psychotherapy a unique practice that covers the life span. Dr. Hollman is widely published on topics relevant to parents and children such as juried articles and chapters in the international Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, The International Journal of Infant Observation, and the Inner World of the Mother. She is the author of Unlocking Parental Intelligence – Finding Meaning in Your Child’s Behavior, winner of the Mom’s Choice Award, and the Busy Parent’s Guides series of books: The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anxiety in Children and Teens – The Parental Intelligence Way, and The Busy Parent’s Guide to Managing Anger in Children and Teens – The Parental Intelligence Way (Familius, Aug. 1, 2018). Learn more at lauriehollmanphd.com.