Whether your child is still a baby, a preschooler or is already school age, most children will go through a phase of separation anxiety at some point. In today’s blog post we discuss how to help your child get through the phases of separation anxiety and help them get grounded. Helping your child through their separation anxiety won’t be a quick fix as it requires working with them often to build their confidence.
The goal for dealing with separation anxiety is to build their confidence while they are away from us.
Common periods of separation anxiety will be around 6 months of age when babies are learning cause and effect, around 12 months when they may be starting childcare and again around 18 months. Often separation anxiety can be triggered by a new sibling in the picture or having mom or dad away or even home for longer than usual periods.
Can’t even leave the room to go to the bathroom without your child crying and freaking out? Play and laughter is the ticket! Start playing games with your child to teach them that you always come back when you leave. It is important to play these games when your child is not already upset at you having left.
Games to ease separation anxiety for babies:
- Tell your child you will be right back.
- Leave for 30 seconds to start
- When you come back, cheer “I’m back! Yay!”, “I said I’d come back and here I am!” Don’t run to ‘save’ your child right away, get down to their level and talk to them about how you said you would be back and how you came back.
- Repeat this game often, and even if you don’t think your 6 month old understands you, keep repeating the words as they will come to associate them with your leaving and will eventually understand that you will in fact come back.
Games to ease separation anxiety for toddlers:
- Play role play games where their stuffed animals or trains have a mommy that leaves the room and comes back to the child toy.
- Turn the tables in the role play and pretend to be the one upset about having to go to childcare (or wherever) and allow your child to console you. They will be the one to say “It’s okay”.
Games to ease separation anxiety for preschoolers:
At this age, the games can get more interesting and fun. Think of creative ways to play:
- Use a timer– countdown the time it takes for you to go to the washroom, etc. “Time me. I’m going to run to the bathroom” Have them give you two minutes and see if you can make it back before the timer runs out. This gives them something to focus on while you are gone and you can eventually encourage a longer time to be gone.
- Use charts and calendars to provide a visual of your child’s day. For example if Mom and Dad take turns doing the bedtime routine, you can have a calendar showing Mom’s night and Dad’s night so your child can see what’s coming and knows what to expect of the bedtime routine. Or if childcare is the issue, show them which days they are at childcare and which days they are home with you all day.
You don’t have to stick to the calendar 100% of the time, as certainly things will come up that will require changes to the routine, but being consistent most of the time will allow your child to feel like they have some control.
More tips to ease separation anxiety for all ages:
- Give your child ample warning when you are leaving.
- Say a short and simple goodbye. Don’t linger too long with the goodbye as it just increases their anxiety.
- Always say goodbye, don’t sneak away.
- Practice leaving the house if you are always home- leaving for short periods of time to allow your child time to get used to you being away.
- Read books and/or watch tv shows that address these phases. Children can often relate to the characters in books and shows. Daniel Tiger Neighborhood is a great show to let your children watch, it has good lessons each episode with songs you can learn to sing with your child to remind them of the lessons, like this one Grown Ups Come Back.
- Play peekaboo with the bathroom door. Make it fun! Show them you are just on the other side of the door and you will be out shortly. Leave books outside the door and maybe even a chair so they can wait for you quietly instead of banging on the door for you to come out.
- Validate how they are feeling about you being gone, but don’t panic as it just feeds their anxiety when you ‘save’ them after you come back.
Separation Anxiety and Sleep
Night time anxiety can cause major issues at bedtime. To ease the anxiety that may come from your child being left alone in their room at night, play in and around their crib during non-sleep times. This will make them comfortable in their own space and feel safe and secure in their rooms.
If your child is an independent sleeper, don’t revert all the way back to the beginning again where you have to teach them independent sleep all over again. Stay consistent with supporting them and know that daytime activities affect night time routines too.
Separation Anxiety and Getting Time to Make Meals:
- Fill their tank with some cuddle time- about 10 minutes- before you start cooking dinner. Spending the extra few minutes with them beforehand will allow them to feel their needs are met and stay out from underfoot while you get dinner ready.
- Put young children in a high chair and give them an activity to do while you cook, or even better give them some veggies to munch on while they get to watch you from the safety of their chair.
- Older kids could be given coloring books or puzzles to do at the kitchen table or counter while you cook
Tips for Separation Anxiety at Childcare Drop-offs:
- Keep a consistent routine at drop off- if you always stay to help or watch them take off their shoes, keep that consistent so your child knows what to expect.
- Don’t sneak away- make sure you say goodbye
- Get them used to you leaving before they start childcare- tell them you are going to work and leave for a little while
- Take drives by your work if you can so they can see where you go when you say you are going to work.
- With older children, don’t be afraid of their upset. Allow them to offload before you leave for childcare and give them the opportunity to get it out of their system so they don’t have a huge meltdown at drop off. Check out our blog post on emotional offloading here.
- Allow your preschooler to have a special toy they can bring to help ease the anxiety.
- Cut out little hearts out of paper to put in your pockets. When your child misses you, tell them to touch the heart in their pocket and you will feel it too through the hearts in your own pockets.
- Along the same idea as the hearts, read them the book the Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn: “Whenever you feel lonely and need a little loving from home, just press your hand to your cheek and think, ‘Mommy loves you. Mommy loves you.”
One last tip we wanted share is that if you are off work for an extended period of time, for example you have the summer off or are parental/maternity leave, we recommend leaving your child in childcare part time if you can. Staying in childcare one day a week will allow them to stay social and be with their friends, give you a bit of a break and most importantly, keep them in a bit of a childcare routine which will alleviate needing to make adjustments when they need to start childcare full time again.
We hope these tips help you and give you ideas to work with your child to ease their separation anxiety. If you have any questions, feel free to leave us a comment or join us on our Facebook page or group.