When Leah Macpherson first walked her three-year-old daughter, Sophie, through the doors of the neighbourhood preschool, she caught a whiff of freedom amid the scents of crayon, glue and paint. This was it: While Sophie was spreading her wings, Mom could put up her feet — at least for a few hours. Delightedly, she hung Sophie’s backpack on a hook, kissed her daughter’s chubby cheek and, giving her a squeeze, turned to leave. Sophie fell apart.
“Crying would be an understatement,” says Macpherson. “She wailed. She clung to me. Her teachers had to pry her off my body. I got into my car and sobbed.” Sophie and Mom cried every day for almost a month. Worse, it wasn’t restricted to preschool partings; Sophie even refused to go on playdates.
Although not every child’s behaviour will be quite as dramatic as Sophie’s, almost all will experience some distress over daycare drop-offs or make a fuss over farewells. Toronto parenting expert Alyson Schäfer assures us that separation anxiety is a perfectly normal response to the stress of a parting from a parent or other trusted caregiver. Here’s why it happens — and what you can do to help both yourself and your little one cope with the situation.
The upside of anguish
Deborah Patrick, senior child care educator for the Leslie Diamond Child Care Centre at the Vancouver YWCA, actually encourages parents to celebrate the arrival of separation anxiety, saying, “It shows your child is bonded to his parents and is aware of what’s going on around him.” (But if your child doesn’t have strong reactions to parting from you, she adds, that isn’t a reason to worry that a bond is missing.)
The first signs of this developmental milestone usually arrive halfway through your child’s first year of life. “At about six to eight months, babies start to ‘get’ what we call object permanence,” explains Scott Cowley, a professor of early childhood education at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ont. “They begin to realize that mom and dad still exist, even when they can’t see them. Before that, they’ve operated in a sort of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ world.”
With that dawning awareness, though, comes a daunting fear. “Hey, if Mom’s not here, where is she? And who is this new person who’s changing my diaper?” Just as children are learning skills like walking and talking, they are also learning whom to trust. Recognition and trust are big parts of cognitive development, Cowley says. “The familiar is safe; the unfamiliar may not be.”
Some developmental psychologists theorize that we are genetically programmed to be apprehensive of strange people and places. “It may be innate and inborn and designed to keep kids safe,” Cowley says. That may be why separation anxiety exists in every country and culture around the world.
How long will it last?
OK, so the hysteria surrounding goodbyes is normal. But will it ever end?
On a day-to-day basis, “the anxiety lasts for as long as the child can hold the thought of separation in his mind,” says Schäfer. “So distraction and swift departures reduce the stress — they allow the child to get on with being busy, sooner.”
In other words, the worst thing you can do is linger or let on that you’re feeling anxious too. Instead, stay calm (at least on the outside!) and try to engage your child in her new surroundings: “Look, Angela has put some playdough on the craft table today” or “Let’s check out the dress-up centre.”
When you use such tactics, you can expect the tears and tantrums to go away in a few weeks for most kids. For others, separation anxiety may continue for longer, and it’s normal to see a few relapses on the road to capital-I independence.
For example, while Sophie Mac-pherson’s tantrums stopped after about a month and she did learn to feel safe with her preschool teachers, the distress returned when she started junior kindergarten the following year — and so did Mom’s anguish.
“I thought that we were over this,” says Macpherson. “I felt like I was living my worst nightmare. She was crying; I was holding it together — and then going home and crying my eyes out.”
Like Macpherson, many parents see separation anxiety spike at such critical milestones as the beginning of daycare, preschool or kindergarten. But, according to Patrick, it isn’t a life sentence. “As children gain ex-perience and understanding, they are more able to manage separation. By the age of five or six, there is sufficient intellectual development and understanding of language that, while they may still feel the anxiety, they’ve learned how to live with it.”
What you can do to help
Meanwhile, you don’t have to sit back helplessly and wait. Parents can play a valuable part in coaching a child through any tough time, and this is one of them.
Show that you understand what he’s going through. Often, a child won’t let go of a negative feeling until it has been acknowledged. “You can do that by saying things like ‘I see that you’re sad’ or ‘I can see how tough this is for you,’” Cowley notes.Reassure. Let your child know that she is in capable hands: “Your teachers care about you and are here to help you.” Provide her with specific information about where you will be, what you will be doing and, most importantly, when you will be back. “This allows the child to hold a mental picture of you throughout your absence and alleviates fear of the unknown,” says Cowley.
Make changes gradually. “If time permits, ease your child into a new situation by staying with him for the first day, then leaving him for a few minutes, then half an hour, building up to longer periods,” advises Patrick. And try to avoid making a number of changes all at once.
Send along a little piece of home. A family photograph or a beloved stuffed animal will serve as a reminder that this separation isn’t permanent — home is only a few hours away.
In most cases, anxiety eases as kids take baby steps toward independence. Sophie Macpherson eventually became a happy kindergarten student. And while her mother knows the changes coming in Sophie’s future may bring more anxiety, she feels confident Sophie can handle it.
When to get help
Sobbing, sadness, clinginess — these are the most common faces of separation anxiety, but the fear can show up in other forms as well. Some children become quiet and withdrawn, refusing to interact with care providers or other children. “In really young kids, we sometimes see a reluctance to take bottles and difficulty sleeping,” says Deborah Patrick, senior child care educator for the Leslie Diamond Child Care Centre at the Vancouver YWCA. A school-aged child’s fears may manifest in more devious ways — such as faking sickness or dawdling.
Most of the time, such behaviour is normal and lasts only a few weeks. But in rare cases, commonplace separation anxiety can become the less common separation anxiety disorder. Here’s when to seek a doctor’s assistance:
• You feel your child’s symptoms have lasted too long.
• The anxiety starts to interfere with eating and sleeping when the child is at home.
• Your child’s grades suffer and he refuses to participate in normal activities, such as attending school and camp.
• Your school-aged child follows you from room to room, refusing to let you out of his sight.