BY CHRISTIE DEL AMO JOHNSON JUL 2016
The Do’s and Don’ts of Breaking Away
At nine months, Christine Botthof’s son, Chase, got a serious case of separation anxiety. “If I walked from the kitchen to the laundry room, he would burst into screams and cries,” says Botthof. “As soon as I would reappear, he’d stop.” She says he grew out of it by the time he was 18 months.
Her daughter Torie got a mild case at nine months, but the worst came at 19 months. “As soon as she sees me, the only thing on her mind is being held. If I put her down, she cries,” says Botthof. “Torie doesn’t do strangers yet. Because of this, any Mommy’s Day Out program is off-limits right now.” She says, at times, she feels desperate.
Barbara Newton is a licensed marriage and family therapist with Southern Behavioral Services in Macon. She says separation anxiety is a normal part of the developmental process, but that doesn’t make it easy. “I think that leaving your child and having your child learn to see you leave is one of the most difficult things you’re going to do,” she says. “It starts from first time you leave them with their grandmother to when you drive them to college. A good mom struggles with it, and it is okay.”
Newton says around nine months is when children begin to develop their personality and also begin to understand when mom and dad aren’t there. “It’s one of those markers they need to accomplish in order to feel confident,” she says. So, it should never be viewed as misbehaving or as a bad thing, but there are ways to handle it.
Characteristics of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety is defined by distress when the parent, the mother in particular, walks away from the child. Some children begin crying, whining, or screaming. Others may cling or beg their parent to stay. They also have a tendency to cry around others and refuse to be with anyone but their primary caregiver.
Children’s physician Dr. Gigi Youngblood says this is all a sign of healthy bonding, and most children will grow out of it. “It can be really hard on the parents,” says Dr. Youngblood. “Every parent is going to feel some degree of guilt or frustration.”
How to Help Your Child Cope
DO talk to other parents about the issue, so you know you’re not alone. “Talk to mommy friends, and compare notes,” says Newton. “Things that are not in the normal range percolate to the top.”
DON’T punish or bribe your child. Separation anxiety is a healthy part of children’s development. By threatening or bribing them, you’re making it something it’s not.
DO have a calm hand-off. Have your sitter arrive 10-15 minutes before you have to leave. That will give your child time to become engaged in something else.
DON’T apologize or sneak out. This could make your child more anxious. Youngblood says you should give no indication that anything is wrong or out of the ordinary.
DO establish a goodbye ritual. Newton recommends giving children something to look forward to when you return. “Tell them mommy is going to give them five kisses when she gets back,” she says. “Or give them your favorite scarf to hold on to, and say, ‘Can you put this in your pocket so you can give it back to me when I get back?’ It’s a true connection.”
DON’T “check in” after you’ve left. Experts say if you come back because your child is crying, you’re teaching them to cry in order to get you to come back. “Typically, after the parent leaves, the child is only upset for five minutes,” says Youngblood.
DO have a “security” object. For some children it’s a lovie, for others it’s a picture of mom. It can help comfort your child when you’re gone.
Games You Can Play
Experts say there are several games you can play to help your child with their separation anxiety. Newton says try Peek-A-Boo. By standing behind a door and popping out to show your child you’re there, they understand that when you go away, you’ll always come back. You can also try walking into another room while singing so your child continues to hear your voice even though they can’t see you.
Youngblood says this is also around the time when children begin to explore their surroundings. “Let your child leave, but don’t run right behind them,” she says. ‘Wait a few seconds and then reappear.”
If they’re really having difficulty, make sure that they have exposure to different people when you can be around. Experts say it’s helpful to try different play groups, going to family members’ houses, or visiting the zoo and talking to the zookeeper. You may even try brief separations with their grandparents, other relatives, or your close friends.
When to Worry
While most cases of separation anxiety are normal, experts say if children continue to show signs much past two years of age, you should consult your pediatrician. Prolonged distress could also be a red flag. This could be a sign of separation anxiety disorder.
“You can actually see periods of it when they start school at five to seven years-old. Also when they start middle school,” says Youngblood. “That can be normal, but also a sign of dysfunction.” She says stress at home, like a move, different childcare setting, or illness can create a reoccurrence of separation anxiety. All of this is normal, as long as it doesn’t continue for more than a week.
In most cases, separation anxiety is nothing more than a phase. “When Chase finally did move on, I left like I was the one who was hooked and then missed him so much,” says Botthof. “But really, it is what it is . . . a child moving on to the next stage of his life.”