Any mother will be upset when her toddler starts to cry or even becomes terrified when she turns her back. It is worse when you leave your child with a day-carer, play group or nursery school where she has to stay for a few hours because you have to go to work. Or if you and your spouse planned a great night out and she yells blue murder when the babysitter arrives and she realises you are on your way, without her. Separation anxiety in children is normal. But if you handle it correctly from the outset, she will eventually allow you to leave without shedding a tear. Experts give advice about handling separation anxiety:
If you take your child to new surroundings (for example day-care or nursery school), spend some time there with her. As soon as she realises you yourself are comfortable in the environment and that you trust the person you are leaving her with, she will also feel safer – this can make the separation process easier.
Give her sufficient ‘trial sessions’ by first leaving her with someone for short periods (say an hour) to ‘visit’ without you being present, and where the experience should be positive. Let her realise that you are going away but will return eventually. The ideal is to for example let her initially stay with her grandparents or an aunt she knows well and with whom she likes to stay. To avoid or postpone the separation process until one day you are compelled to do so, may only exacerbate the situation.
Inform your child’s day-carer or nursery school teacher about the separation anxiety, so that she knows how to handle her and can pacify her.
Try to establish a fixed morning routine as well as a drop-off and fetch routine. Children feel safe in a predictable environment. Prepare her on how the day will progress and what will be happening. Tell her for example that you will fetch her after lunch, story time or nap time. And keep your promise so that she will trust you every time.
Allow her to take along a favourite toy or blanket or even something that will remind her of your, such as a scarf with your familiar scent on it. This can help her to feel safe and sheltered and can be phased out gradually as her anxiety abates.
Establish a short ritual when you say goodbye, and stick to it. It creates a positive memory which she can recall when she misses you during the day.
Always say goodbye when you leave. If you slip away, your child will be even more upset when she realises you are no longer there. But don’t drag out the farewell too long, even if she cries when you leave. Usually the personnel are capable of soothing and comforting the children.
Be aware of and suppress your own anxiety about the situation. Stay calm and in control and hold back your own tears until you are out of sight. Children are especially aware of their parents’ conduct in unfamiliar situations. If she sees you are upset, emotional or tearful, she will react in the same way. Try to remain calm, relaxed, friendly and patient. This will also make her feel relaxed and safe.
Get professional help if she displays more than the normal age-appropriate separation anxiety and it worsens instead of improving, to such an extent that it influences her daily functioning. Nightmares, changes in behaviour and psychosomatic symptoms that develop due to separation anxiety could be possible signs of a separation anxiety disturbance or other underlying problems, that can be rectified with professional help.