How to cope with separation anxiety
Learn how to deal with your baby or toddler’s frustrating and confusing separation anxiety

Learn how to deal with your baby or toddler’s frustrating and confusing separation anxiety

There are few things as emotionally draining as dropping a child at school when she cries, screams and clamps herself to your legs. No parent can claim to be immune to the self-doubt, guilt and worry separation anxiety induces.

Vaneshri’s daughter, Jada, started crying and clinging to her mother the first day of play school at the age of 3. This became a distressing pattern that carried on until she was 6-and-a-half.

“I had to unwrap her arms from around my neck almost every day for three years," says Vaneshri. "It broke my heart. Sometimes it was so bad, I would end up bringing her home. I don’t know whether that was a good thing, to pander to it, but there were days when I just couldn’t cope and I felt like a terrible mother. How do you take a hard line every day with your child’s red, tear-stained face pressed up against the window of the classroom?”

How it develops

In her book Babies in Mind, psychologist and author Jenny Perkel stresses that there is nothing unusual or wrong with separation anxiety. “If your baby has separation anxiety, she is not doing anything pathological.”

Pretoria-based psychologist Elise Fourie works mainly with children and says there is a normal pattern of “stranger anxiety” all small children go through, a fear that manifests from around 6 months and often lasts until 18 months.

She explains that small children display anxiety about their mother leaving them because they have not developed “object permanence” – an understanding that something exists even if they can’t see it. To remain secure with a parent, they need to know that the parent will always be there.

Object permanence is thought to only develop by the age of 2, but it could be affected by a child’s stress levels and whether there have been long periods of absence from the primary care giver.

“Also, children only develop a sense of time when they’re in about grade one, so they don’t understand how long a day or an hour is. Being away from the parent for any amount of time feels long,” says Elise.

There are three emotional phases a child separated from a parent will go through, says Elise. “If the parent returns after a short while – and short is a relative term related to the child’s age – the child will feel reunited, so the effects of the separation will not be detrimental.

"If the parent doesn’t return within this period, the child begins to mourn," she continues. "Should the parent return during the mourning phase, the child may still recuperate. But if the separation period is too long, the child ‘finishes’ mourning, accepts their loss and calms down. The loss they have experienced will in some way remain with them always, but they are able to move on.” It’s important to note, though, that Elise is referring to long, uninterrupted separations – not the shorter breaks related to day care and schooling.

The triggers

Parents and children get separated for a variety of reasons: mothers have to return to work, parents decide to go on holiday without their children, divorce might mean that a small child is expected to spend days away from their primary caregiver to visit the other parent, and sometimes families are separated due to illness and hospitalisation.

Make goodbyes easier

Vaneshri and Jada were not traumatically separated for lengths of time when she was little. Even though Vaneshri worked, Jada had a loving nanny with whom she firmly bonded, and Vaneshri, as a freelancer, was able to see her daughter more than most mothers who work away from home for several hours a day.

When Jada’s separation problems started, Vaneshri explored every avenue to make the morning transitions from home to school easier. “I tried to find out if there was something happening at school that made her unhappy, but the irony was that from day one she adored school and her teachers. She still does. If she is being difficult at home in any way, we just have to threaten that we’ll keep her home from school, and she jumps into line immediately.”

What helped Vaneshri to cope was that the teachers were always understanding and helpful. “Jada and I – and Jada and her father – had rituals for drop-off. We’d decide what games we would play together in the class. When it was time for me to leave, the teacher and I would have a signal and I would kiss and hug Jada, and immediately the teacher would tell her she needed a helper to mix paint or whatever. This made it much easier on all of us. But there were still days that were hard.”

Vaneshri’s worry was also always assuaged by being able to call from the car five minutes after drop-off to discover that her daughter was playing happily.

Deepa Kassen, a Cape Town nursery school teacher, reassures mothers that, like Jada, no matter how much the child cries when she is dropped off at school, they almost always settle down two or three minutes after the parent has left.

“We reassure them and distract them. We tell them that we can always phone Mommy if we need to, and that Mommy will be back after story time. Quite often, however, this brief process is complicated by the parent rather than the child. Some mothers take far too long to say goodbye and if that is the case, we often suggest that the father brings the child. They seem better able to kiss, hug and leave. Mothers who hover make it worse for themselves and their children,” says Deepa.

The process of helping Jada let go of her mother and father more easily was helped by Vaneshri’s ability to tune in to Jada’s needs, because getting upset or frustrated with the endlessly repetitive goodbye drama always exacerbated, rather than helped, Jada’s clinginess at school.

Vaneshri says, “What helped was remembering that I had also been an extremely anxious child. I would tell Jada about how I used to feel when my mother had to leave me at school, and she was really interested, and seemed to feel understood. She is a painfully shy child and we realised that the anxiety had to do with entering into a group situation with other children. The teacher was key to making the transition happen.”


Q: My son, who is 3-and-a-half, started school earlier this year and the mornings were hell on all of us. He has now settled down but still cries when I leave him for the first day or two after the holidays. Is this normal?

Deepa Kassen says, “Yes, children who have difficulties separating, but settle down sometimes, struggle again after holidays or long weekends. If your nursery school runs a holiday programme, it might help to let your child do the holiday programme for a few days in the holidays so he can still feel connected to, and familiar with, the school."

Elise Fourie says, “It’s important to speak to your child’s teacher. Usually a child calms down after a while. If they don’t, or if there are secondary symptoms like bed-wetting or nail biting, the child is experiencing some sort of stress. It might help to see a therapist who deals with children if the problem is really worrying you, but don’t forget that children will naturally fear new situations and change of routine”.

Dr Carol Watkins, in a peer-reviewed article on separation anxiety in young children, writes, “Some degree of separation anxiety is a sign that the preschooler has developed healthy attachments to loved ones.”

Q: What can I do to make my toddler’s transition from home-body to nursery schooler easier?

Elise Fourie says, “Before your child is 3, it is best to avoid any overnight separation from them, as it pushes a child’s ability to cope. If it can’t be helped, do everything in your power to make sure the child is with someone they know well and trust.”

Allow your child to be away from you for short periods before she starts school, and when it comes to preparing her for any separation, tell her you will be back. This is very important.

Don’t be late to fetch your child, and make sure she has a concrete way of understanding time, so tell her, “I’ll be back after snack time.” Give her an event to associate with your return.

More tips:

  • Never sneak out when your child is not looking.
  • Stay calm, reassuring, confident and resolute about leaving, no matter how much she is crying. If she senses your own ambivalence it will make matters worse.

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