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Separation Anxiety

IMG_8224Dear Miss Faith,
My son turns 3 next month. We have been a family since returning from East Africa 2 years ago. I have been home with him, working during his naps and after putting him to bed. Suddenly and most vehemently he has developed separation anxiety. Even with beloved grandparents. Two weeks ago he was annoyed when I lingered while dropping him off (they have been having once a week visits and he had become terrifically possessive of them). The next week he was suddenly a little nervous, teary, but quickly fine. Last week he shrieked as though he had been handed off to Freddy Kruger. What can we do/say to help alleviate his stress?

Dear Mama,
Thanks for writing! Separation anxiety can come on at any age, and it often comes and goes–I’ve seen it with lots of kids in my play groups. Even children who have been with me for many months, and have a wonderful time every day, can suddenly have a hard time saying goodbye. It usually lasts a few weeks and then dies down again. I think of it as happening at times when children go through spiritual awakenings, when they look around and realize that they are really, truly separate from you.

If it’s possible, I’d suggest limiting your outings for a week or two. However, if that’s not possible, then the absolute best thing you can do is to be loving and reassuring, but confident in your decision to drop him off, and confident that he’ll have a wonderful time with his grandparents while you’re gone, even though saying goodbye is hard. When children are suddenly scared/overwhelmed, having a solid, sure, secure-in-their-knowledge-of-what’s-best parent is the greatest gift you can give. Having you be ambivalent, or changing your mind at the last minute because of his big reaction, only tends to make matters worse for everyone. I’ve seen it dozens of times! I’m not sure exactly why this is, but I have two ideas. First, I think it’s because it gives children the message that perhaps they’re right, and they ARE actually unsafe being left behind. What a horrible confirmation of all their fears! Second, I think it gives children the message that they are in fact the ones ‘in charge’ of everything. At a time when they’re feeling unsure of the world, and unsure of their own identities, and unsure of their relationships, the last thing that children want is the message that they must be ‘in charge.’ Instead, let your child know that he is safe, that he is loved, that you are in charge, and that you will always come back.
I realize that this may be extra hard for you, since you’ve brought him home from East Africa and have been working so hard on letting him know that he’s safe and secure. You’ve been doing a good job! This is all part of growing up, on his part. Part of continuing to let him know that he’s safe and secure is by feeling your reassurance radiating out from you, that even though saying goodbye is hard, you know he’ll have a wonderful time without you, and you’ll be glad to see him when you get back.
Another thing you can do at his age is to tell him a story about another child (perhaps an imaginary child, perhaps you when you were little?) who never wanted to say goodbye to his mother, who was so sad and would cry and cry when she said goodbye. Perhaps something like this?
Once upon a time, there was a little boy named Johnny who never wanted to say goodbye to his mom. Whenever she dropped him off at a friend’s house, or at his Grandma and Grandpa’s house, that little boy would cry and cry. He felt like nothing would make him feel better! But after she left, his Grandpa would wrap him up in BIGGGGG hug. And his Grandma would make him a yummy snack to eat. And the three of them would sit on the couch together and read a story, and then they would play together until lunchtime, when they would eat sandwiches and juice together. In the afternoon, when his mom came to pick him up, there Johnny would be, playing and happy.
But the next time he went for a visit, Johnny started crying again! He felt like nothing would make him feel better. He cried and cried. And you know what happened? His Grandpa would wrap him up in a BIGGGGG hug. And his Grandma would make him a yummy snack to eat. And the three of them would sit on the couch together and read a story.
And one day, Johnny looked up and he realized that he loved his Grandma and Grandpa very much, and that they loved him! And that he would always be safe with them, even if his mama was not there. The next time he came over to their house, he felt like crying again! But this time, he took a deep breath. He gave his mom the biggest hug in the whole world. He said, “I love you, Mom.” And he went over to his Grandma and Grandpa and said, “Let’s read a story on the couch together.” And they did.
And from that day forward, even though it was always hard to say goodbye, little Johnny knew that his Grandma and his Grandpa would give him a hug whenever he needed, and read him a story whenever he needed, and give him a snack whenever he needed, and that when his Mom came to pick him up, he’d be able to tell her all of the fun things they’d done that day. And he did.
Feel free to use that story, or make it relevant to your own lives. Children love hearing stories like this! Don’t be too heavy-handed about “Now, you can be like Johnny and stop crying when I leave;” this just makes it feel like you’re being didactic and pushing him away. Instead, just let it soak in and rest confident in knowing that it’s working its magic inside. And let it work on you, too!
Warmly, ~Miss Faith

Comments

  1. pamela jean shaffer says:

    Thank you. I find it reassuring that children have gone through this even under your care. A friend told me her son had developed separation anxiety at about the same age as well, even though he had been going to child care since three months old (after her maternity leave was over).

    Your story was adjusted to a Mama fox and baby fox, Renard. “He’d take a big breath and howl, and cry and make such a fuss” was the refrain after each episode, until the last when he “took a big breath and remembered his Mama loved him and would be right back”. It’s the first time Gabriel has asked me to repeat a story. And we say it every night (several times) with the lights turned off after having read a book. Yesterday he hesitated to take a walk with Granpapa without me, but went on. Upon return he invited himself over (grandparents live next store); and was a bit miffed with I came to collect him! The phase is phasing out.

    • I love that image of the baby fox putting up a howl! I’m so glad that your reassurances are paying off and he’s moving through to the other side. Growing up is a big deal! It makes sense that it can feel overwhelming at times.

  2. Amy Merkey says:

    Thank you for this. My 3 year old son has recently been having problems saying good-bye when we drop him off for preschool. He had absolutely no problems going to school for the first 3 months, but the last two weeks have been full of tears and crying out for me when I leave. I have been assuring him that he’ll have a fun time with his friends and I’d be there waiting for him when school was over. He asked me the other night if I still loved him while he was at school. It broke my heart that he would even have to wonder this. I can’t wait to tell him a certain little story before bed tonight. Thank you!

    • Oh, Amy, thanks for sharing this.

      You might also start doing things that let him know that you’re thinking about him while he’s at school: put a note in his lunchbox (if you pack a lunch). Tell him of things that happened while he was at school that made you think of him, and how much you love him. Maybe even give him something that is yours (a barrette or something small) that he could keep in his pocket or in his cubby, and whenever he misses you can can squeeze it hard and he’ll feel your love for him soaking into his hand. You could even develop a little ritual where you pour some love into this object, and whisper a message of love for him into it, as part of your goodbye process. Just think about how to let this little guy know that your love for him is strong, no matter where you are. What a gift that he can tell you his fears so clearly!

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