Letting Go: Easing Separation for Young Children and their Parents

jcs blog

By Myra Strassler, LCSW-C, Therapy Services
Jewish Community Services

Is this a scene you can relate to? Your child, with her face puffy red, tears streaming down her cheeks, is holding on to you for dear life because you are leaving her for a night out with your spouse. Or maybe your child is throwing a massive temper tantrum: yelling, screaming that he does not want you to leave him alone when it’s time to go to sleep. For any parent, reactions like these can be pretty upsetting. What to do?

As unsettling as moments like these can be to parents, we need to remember that it is natural and normal for a young child to be anxious and upset about leaving a parent. There are times when parents and children must separate. By having a better understanding of what is happening, you can develop strategies for coping that can go a long way to easing your child’s discomfort — and your own — at these times.

WHAT IS GOING ON?
Even after young children begin to talk, they rarely have the skill to convey fully what they want their parents to know. More often young children use repeated actions to communicate. Over time, parents become experts at reading their children’s cues and are able to meet their needs.

From this give-and-take our children learn they can depend on us and develop an internal sense of well-being. This “internal safety net” enables children to separate and move toward exploring their world. They continue to need their parents to feel secure, and yet they have a strong desire to explore. It is no wonder that childhood separation is so difficult for parents and children alike.

There are periods when heightened separation anxiety is a normal part of development. At seven months, your infant begins to cling to you and become fearful of new faces. These feelings peak over the next two to three months. They now know when you are there and when you are gone, but they become anxious because they don’t know if you will return.

For toddlers, separation anxiety is the highest between 18 and 24 months. Physically they are able to get around more easily. Walking and reaching for any new thing they see, they can separate themselves physically from you, but constantly peek over their shoulders to make sure you’re still there.

While separation anxiety is normal during these early years, it does vary from child to child, with some children showing more signs of it than others. How long it lasts varies, depending on the temperament of the child and how the parent responds. Here are some concrete things you can do to ease the way.

  • Play disappearing games such as peek-a- boo and hide and seek when your child is 9 months and older.
  • Schedule separations after naps and feedings. Children manage stress better after resting and eating.
  • Give your child a chance to get to know a new caregiver before being left.
  • Children do better with brief separations first.
  • Create a “hello-good-bye” book with pictures of mom and dad.
  •  Never leave without saying good-bye.
  • Before leaving make sure your child has a favorite object as a reminder of you.

WHEN IS SEPARATION ANXIETY BEYOND WHAT IS EXPECTED FOR A CHILD’S DEVELOPMENTAL LEVEL?
If separation anxiety continues, first make sure that the situation in which your child is being cared for is appropriate. When the anxiety persists for weeks, parents need to consider talking with a mental health professional. If it is necessary to get a professional evaluation, seek a professional who is specifically trained to diagnose and treat emotional problems in children.

Resources:
The Emotional Life of a Toddler by Alicia F. Lieberman, Ph. D.
Effective Parenting for the Hard- to- Manage Child by Georgia A. Degangi and Anne Kendall
Separation Anxiety: Preparing You and Your Child for Separation by Kristen Learnard

Questions about parenting? Send an email to parenttalk@jcsbaltimore.org. For more information on parenting click here or call 410-466-9200.

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