Separation anxiety is a normal, natural phase for young children to go through. By the age of 2, most kids have gotten used to the idea of being apart from their primary caregiver. But if your child is older and the "goodbye" routine at daycare or school is still a challenge of tears and tantrums, your child may have separation anxiety disorder.
Whether or not a child's separation anxiety is at the level of a disorder, there are things caregivers can do to soothe a child's worries and make goodbyes easier.
Encourage your child's trust in other people. Trust is built through interaction and experience. Make an effort early on to have your child relate to people outside of the immediate family. Take your new baby on visits to friends' homes. Show your baby that you trust others by letting friends hold your baby. Don't shy away from polite strangers, either. Every friendly coo and giggle and funny face helps your child learn about and trust other people. Ask a responsible friend to baby-sit now and then - even if only for an hour while you go grocery shopping. Time spent with other people early in your child's life will build trust and an understanding that you come back when you leave.
Prepare for stressful medical moments. Some of the most stress-inducing moments for kids with separation anxiety come at hospitals and doctors' offices. With younger children, stay close during procedures, if possible holding infants during vaccinations. Your presence and touch can help to ease pain and anxiety.
For more involved procedures or surgeries, bring your child for a pre-visit to the facility and show him or her where you'll be waiting. Assure your child that you will be there as soon as the medical treatment is done. In some instances, doctors suggest a mild sedative or tranquilizer to minimize risk of trauma.
Get good at "goodbye." To get better at goodbyes, your child may simply need practice. Do a drop-off "dress rehearsal": Visit the school, daycare, or grandma's house and walk through how goodbyes will go. Going through the routine together beforehand could really empower your child and help dial down anxiety.
You might also need to adjust your separation routines. Maybe the timing is off. Is your child more likely to pitch a fit if he or she is tired, hungry, or restless? Try reminding your child of the fun to be had at school or at a sleepover. In any event, keep goodbyes short, sweet, and to the point.
Get good at "good night," too. Bedtime is an ordeal for many kids, but for kids with separation anxieties, it can be even worse. Children with separation anxiety may have trouble falling asleep on their own, begging Mom or Dad to stay in the room or asking to sleep in the parents' bed. Nightmares and midnight wake-ups are also common.
As with goodbyes, "good night" needs to be practiced. Run through the routine and the expectations, and be gentle, firm, and consistent. Let your child choose a nightlight or a favourite cuddly stuffed animal to sleep with. Reassure your child that you will just be up the hall or downstairs - and that you will still be there in the morning.
Know when to let go. Separation can be as painful for the parents as it is for the child. It hurts to witness your child in tears or in fear. But as bad as it can feel, it is important to realize that being apart from you and interacting with others is an invaluable learning experience for your child. The tears will dry in the short run, and, in the long run, children become more independent and confident.