separation anxiety

Separation anxiety: 19 ways to ease your child's fears (so you can both stop crying!)

Jan. 27, 2013 at 3:32 PM ET

separation anxiety in children
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separation anxiety in children

If your baby doesn't even whimper when you drop him off at daycare or Grandma's, well, enjoy it while it lasts. One fine day, he'll show his displeasure at being left behind, even if you're just headed to the bathroom. Your goal: To get your cutie comfortable at the thought of saying goodbye. And, yes, it can be done—even with the clingiest kid.

1. Expect It Sooner Than Later

Thought you could escape tearful goodbyes until toddlerhood? Not a chance. Separation anxiety can start anywhere from 7 to 9 months, says Mary Margaret Gleason, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics, psychiatry, and neurology at Tulane University in New Orleans. That's the age your baby realizes you are the go-to person for all good things, like comfort, love, and security. And thanks to object permanence—his ability to remember the people and things he loves even if they're not around—he knows his safety net is gone when you're not there.

2. See the Silver Lining

At this age separation anxiety is normal, a healthy sign that your baby's development is right on cue. Here's another reason to pat yourself on the back: All those months you spent soothing your colicky baby or dragging yourself out of bed for another 2 a.m. feeding have taught your baby she can count on you. Of course, you're not the only person in your baby's inner circle, but if you are the one spending the most time with her, expect the wails to be louder when you walk out the door.

3. Don't Confuse Stranger and Separation Anxiety

They may travel together, says Dr. Gleason, but stranger anxiety and separation anxiety are two different things. Stranger anxiety is when your baby's wary of unfamiliar faces—even your mom's. If that person gets close, your little one will fuss or fall apart, even if he's in your arms. It's yet another sign that he knows who's in his tribe. So tell people to take it slow, and not to take his tears personally.

4. Don't Be Caught Off-Guard When It Continues
Sad to say, but separation anxiety can last through toddlerhood, when your newly mobile tot suddenly catches on that he can walk or run away from you. And even though toddlers know more about the world, their grasp on time is shaky—so saying you're just going out to the grocery store means nothing to them, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of the No-Cry series, including The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution.

5. Don't Blame Your Situation

Kids who've gone to daycare since day one are just as likely to experience separation anxiety as the child with a stay-at-home parent, say experts. And since separation anxiety has more to do with your cutie's attachment to you, you really can't head it off by leaving her as a newborn—or leaving her in the care of others as often as you can.

6. It's All About Personality

What makes one child fall apart when his mom says goodbye and another suck his thumb? Temperament. And while the classic sign is the baby who cries and reaches out to you, there are subtler ones too: Your baby might get stiff as a board or very limp and quiet. Or your tot will his twirl his hair, blend into the woodwork, or get super-chatty. None of these ways of reacting mean anything. The toddler who waves bye-bye and goes off to play is just as bonded to his parents as the tot who's melting down in the corner.

7. Don't Focus on Your Child's Reaction

It's not the way your cutie falls apart that counts—it's what happens after you leave. What pediatricians are really looking at is how your little one organizes her feelings, says Dr. Gleason—in other words, how she calms herself down so she can cope with your absence. If your child cries like it's the end of the world every time you say goodbye, it's okay (even though it's tough to watch). What matters more is that she starts playing happily two minutes after you've left. If she never learns to calm herself down, that can turn into a problem. In fact, what distinguishes separation anxiety from a disorder isn't age per se. It's a cluster of behaviors, Dr. Gleason says: Your child can't bear to go to school, can't sleep, or worries that you'll have an accident while you're away.

8. Keep Your Goodbyes Upbeat

Your mission when you leave: To reassure your little one that going away (and returning) are perfectly normal experiences. That's why you want to put on a happy, confident face when you say bye-bye. Saying, "I'll be back soon!" or "You're going to have so much fun at Nana's!" may sound forced (especially if you're a little sad at separating, too) but they help your child feel safer.

9. Don't Be a Basket Case

Nothing spooks a child more than your anxiety. Getting tearful or asking your little one if he's going to be okay will just make him think something bad's going to happen while you're gone. Another no-no: Sweet-talking your child to stay with the promise of a reward. That won't soothe him, either. Instead keep the separation in perspective: "You're just leaving your child with the babysitter, not going away to Europe," says Pantley. And if you've been falling apart up until now, don't worry: Kids are resilient, she adds. Just make a vow to start over tomorrow morning.

10. Help Her Cope From the Get-Go
Besides responding to her needs, there are a few ways you can help your baby cope with uncomfortable feelings. High up on the list : Be predictable and reliable, says Dr. Gleason. Sticking to a flexible routine helps your child deal with frustration because she knows what to expect—especially around cranky times of day like feedings, naps, and bedtime. Older babies can handle a little more frustration as they play. For example, if she's reaching for a toy, nudge it a little closer so she can reach it more easily and cheer her on as she takes a swipe.

11. Start Some Goodbye Rituals
Babies and toddlers are a little OCD, and nothing makes them happier than doing the same thing in the same way every day. Since predictability is so comforting, indulge it (he'll grow out it, honest). If you're doing drop off, pick your special entrance, count steps or hugs, or say your special goodbyes. But don't worry if your mate does it his way (kids can cope with two different rituals). When you pick your child up, do the same in reverse—a special greeting, going-home music, songs, or snacks are ways to smooth transitions and make a kid feel safe.

12. Try Some Trial Runs
If your little clinger can't stand the thought of you going to the bathroom without her, practice mini separations. Play games like peekaboo or, especially, hide and seek. Go into another room, pop back in, and praise her for not falling totally apart. Then gradually increase the time between your exits and entrances. To sweeten the deal, pull out a special toy that she gets to play with while you're in the bathroom. No, they may not totally prevent teary farewells. But your goal is to give your child coping skills, and these little practice runs help.

13. Play Side-by-Side

Most tots don't have the attention span for too much solo play, but you can make it easier by keeping him company as he plays. So plop your baby down, pull out a toy he hasn't seen in awhile, and then do your own thing, whether it's folding clothes or checking out how many people liked your latest Instagram pic. Not only will your baby learn to entertain himself (or at least start the process), he'll also learn to soothe himself.

14. Focus on Fun
Along with those upbeat goodbyes, talk about the fun things your child will do while you're away, says Pantley. That shifts the emphasis away from the tearful present to the much more entertaining future that awaits her when you walk out the door. You can also get her mind off the goodbyes by asking her to paint you a picture or set up the train set to play with when you get back. Another bonus: It helps your tot understand it's okay to have fun while you're gone.

15. Leave Something Behind
There's a reason all those cuddly stuffed animals and blankies are called loveys. They're stand-ins for you, so put them to good use. Include them in goodbye rituals if your child's not allowed to keep his in preschool. Give him something of yours to keep, whether it's an invisible kiss, or, for your kindergarten kid, a lucky nickel or rubber band to wear around his wrist.

16. Read All About It
Even babies like seeing other tots in familiar situations. That's why books can ease so many difficult transitions, from getting dressed to giving up the paci to saying goodbye. Good ones to get on your child's reading list include The Kissing Hand, Owl Babies, I Love You All Day Long and Llama Llama Misses Mama.

17. Always Come Back
Yes, you've heard it a million times. So this makes a million and one—never, ever sneak out. The last thing you want to do is give your child a reason not to trust you, says Dr. Gleason. After all, if she can't count on you, who will she rely on? So don't leave while she's asleep or pretend you're going to a movie when you're actually leaving her for the weekend. But you can tell the babysitter or whoever's watching her the best way to soothe her tears, whether it's playing her favorite tunes or pulling out that special box of toys.

18. Expect Setbacks

Do goodbyes go without a hitch at daycare? Celebrate, but don't get too smug. A new preschool, caregiver, or day camp can be a stressor that can cause a kid to revert back to his clingy ways. Other stressors can include divorce, a bad babysitter, or a new sibling. If your child's experiencing an uptick in meltdowns, whip out your old bag of tricks. The same old same old can soothe him back to the comfort zone.

19. Remember It's Just a Phase

Whether those tearful tantrums last weeks or months, they will go away. But like everything else in childhood, expect the unexpected. Development is less of a straight line than it is about peaks and valleys, says Pantley. A baby who's never had separation anxiety can develop it in preschool. A toddler may go through a bad patch forever, then surprise you by running off without a backward glance. Whatever you have to go through, just remember this. You've taught your kid to handle his emotions and fears—and that will get him through a lot.

A version of this story originally appeared on iVillage.

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