By Sheree Feldman
Almost all children experience some kind of separation anxiety between birth and six years of age. This is quite normal and is a sign of a child’s love and trust in a parent/caregiver. It shows that a child has developed trust that this adult is a sign of security and safety above any one else. This person is usually a parent, but can also be a babysitter, grandparent, or any other person with whom the child has developed a strong attachment. It is important for adults to give children sufficient time and support to help the child move from the primary relationship with the parent/caregiver to a trusting, secondary relationship with other adults. This kind of separation is often as difficult for parent/caregiver as it is for the child. Learning to separate from and reunite with people we love is a life-long process. Hellos and goodbyes can bring out deep feelings in everyone involved. Some of these feelings can be uncomfortable, but because they arouse such strong feelings, hellos and good-byes provide valuable learning for all children. A child can learn about trust when a parent/caregiver says goodbye and returns as promised. A child can learn what it means to be a separate person with deep attachments to others.
When separating a parent/caregiver should remember the following:
(1) Always say goodbye, even when it is tempting to sneak away.
(2) Reassure your child that you will return when class is over.
(3) Once you say good-bye, don’t prolong it; otherwise your child will feel your hesitation to leave.
(4) If your child needs a reminder of home, e.g., a family photo, security blanket, a transitional object, etc., please provide one.
(5) You might plan a special activity (lunch, ice cream, trip to the park) when you reunite, especially for the first few days of separation.
(6) Arrive on time for pick up (especially for those first few days of separation). It is comforting for your child to see that you are on time as promised to pick up.
Separation anxiety doesn’t have a specific beginning or end. It shows itself in peaks and valleys. Your child may separate easily on some days and then struggle on others. S/he may have weeks of easily separating, and then have some days where it becomes a challenge. This can be confusing. It is hard to understand why a child shifts from confidence to anxiety and back again, but this is not abnormal. Gaining the maturity and skills to handle separation with confidence is a process, not a single event. This stage, like so many others in childhood, will pass. In time, your child will learn that s/he can separate from you, that you will return, and that s/he will be okay until you return. Much of this learning is based on trust and experience, which, just as for every human being young or old, takes time to build.
See me if you would like any more information on separation.