We all know that the joys of parenthood are often packaged alongside challenges. Among the challenges parents face early in their children’s lives is that of separation anxiety. Although these anxious childhood episodes often surprise parents, the good news is that they are quite common and thoroughly manageable.
Separation anxiety can manifest itself as the sudden onset of hysterics in an otherwise well-behaved child — possibly as a complaint against the profuse attention suddenly paid to a newborn sibling. Or, these pangs of separation may show up as the tearful sobs of a bewildered little one wondering why mom is walking away and closing the door. These episodes can, understandably, cause parents and caregivers everything from heartache to bafflement in their bids to respond.
The contest with separation anxiety normally begins sometime between the latter third of the child’s first year and the first third of the child’s second year, and the phenomenon can persist in certain cases until age two. At The Learning Experience, our programming serves children ages six weeks and up*, so our centers serve as the very sites where parents and children part company each weekday. Therefore, we must be ready to help children and parents make this critical transition — not only in the hands-on sense during morning drop-off time, but also in the larger sense of providing helpful answers for inquiring parents.
Experts recommend starting off by acknowledging certain reassuring facts.
It’s totally typical. Separation anxiety in life’s very early stages is typical, as research confirms. “A little anxiety about parents leaving is totally normal,” says Jessica Mercer Young, a Ph.D. research scientist at Education Development center in Newton, MA. However, Dr. Young maintains that the severity and timing of the experience will vary from child to child. And, as we at The Learning Experience can attest, the trials of this normal phase are by no means insurmountable.
It gets better over time. Infants have little to no capacity to understand object permanence, the principle that someone (or something) does not vanish from existence merely because he or she (or it) is out of sensory range. But as Martha Farrell Erickson, Ph.D. reminds us, youngsters normally acquire this confidence by seven or eight months of age. The Learning Experience can assuage the difficulty these tiny babies endure by working with the children on a daily basis. As the caregiver greets people who may enter the room — and comforts the infants — the resulting calm that settles on the classroom reassures the infants that these people are okay.
Routines help. The maintenance of daily routines and familiar surroundings helps infants and young children to ground themselves during the absence of one or both parents. Justin Coulson, Ph.D., a relationships and parenting expert (and father of five), relates on kidspot.com the contrasting stories of two toddlers: a boy named Jackson and a girl named Chanel. Jackson’s working mom arranged different babysitters for him multiple nights a week, leading to an insecurity that followed him even into his teens. By contrast, Chanel enjoyed remarkably consistent mealtimes, bath times, and bedtimes, begetting a confidence that made for a comfortable transition into her teenage years. Patterns are thus best established early.
The Learning Experience provides structured programs that rely on routines to engage the children while they learn and have fun. And as the previous point reminds us, the passage of time increases a child’s overall comfort level with everything in the environment.
Other helpful tips and strategies for helping your child navigate through the rough waters of separation anxiety include the following:
- Keep things familiar – Seemingly simple steps, such as furnishing your child with a beloved stuffed animal or cherished blanket, can mitigate the intensity of separation pangs. In time, the daily separations take on a regular rhythm that eventually becomes part of the child’s expanding landscape of familiar experiences. The Learning Experience specializes in providing familiar experiences that make learning fun and therefore never grow stale.
- Always say your goodbyes…- Experts say that it is essential to bid your child farewell each day. Leaving when a child is asleep or lost in an activity can cause a tearful realization to dawn on the child when he realizes you’re gone. Drop-offs at The Learning Experience involve one familiar face taking over for another, as the parent ushers the child into the care of friendly center staff members whom the child has grown to love and trust.
- …but limit separation duration – Equally important, however, is the need to abbreviate the goodbye. A departing declaration such as, “Love ya, Emily! See you again tonight!” is regarded as ideal by Alex Barzvi, Ph.D., clinical director of the New York University Child Study Center’s Institute for Anxiety and Mood Disorders. Dr. Barzvi adds: “Prolonging the departure gives your child the idea that there’s something to be afraid of.” At The Learning Experience, most children take eagerly to the start of each day’s activities, making this limited-length adieu even easier.
- Keep tabs on the tykes – Checking in with your children from time to time can lift both the child’s spirits and yours — especially if your child seemed heartbroken at the earlier separation. Dr. Young assures parents further: “Even if the child becomes upset and cries, they should stop crying soon after the parent leaves.” The Learning Experience allows for parents of all age groups to check in and even visit frequently. Parents are also able to track their children’s activities and experiences remotely via our Safe N Secure app.
- Manage your own emotions – Especially after you see your child cry at the prospect of your departure, your own human need to shed tears may be overwhelming. One suggestion is to hold your reaction until you are no longer with your child. Crying in front of your child can exacerbate the anxiety he or she is already feeling.
The Learning Experience understands that these trying episodes will come to most parents and children, so we’re equipped to provide the support necessary to get everyone through safely and happily. For more information on our educational programs, and for enrollment opportunities, visit our website at www.thelearningexperience.com.
DiProperzio, L. (2015, June 11). How to Avoid Separation Anxiety. Retrieved January 10, 2018, from https://www.parents.com/baby/care/american-baby-how-tos/separation-anxiety/
Why routine and structure benefits your toddler. (2017, July 03). Retrieved January 12, 2018, from http://www.kidspot.com.au/parenting/toddler/toddler-development/why-routine-and-structure-benefits-your-toddler/news-story/fe84fec963d779fd4f032b312f132.
Separation Anxiety Age-by-Age. (2014, July 11). Retrieved January 10, 2018, from http://www.parenting.com/article/separation-anxiety-age-by-age
*Applicable at participating centers