It’s exhilarating to be the center of your child’s universe -- until you go to answer the phone or use the bathroom and your child screams bloody murder and clings to your legs. Separation anxiety tends to kick in around the first birthday, when your baby is aware that there’s only one mommy and that you still exist even when you’re out of view. But the tears and tantrums can make a surprise return between the ages of 1 and 3.
“Often, new developmental milestones (such as learning to walk) or life changes (such as a new sibling or childcare situation) may shake a child’s base of security,” says psychologist and early childhood consultant Terrie Rose, Ph.D. “It can require them to go back and check in with earlier behaviors that are familiar and reassuring to them.”
Fortunately, the lapse should only last until your child adjusts to whatever has temporarily rocked its world. And you can help. “The best thing is to give kids sensitive, responsive care to show that you’re still there for them the same way you’ve always been,” Rose says. “Once they get that reassurance, they’ll be happy to embrace new opportunities.”
Rose endorses these tried-and-true techniques for fuss-free good-byes:
- Time it right A cranky child is a tantrum waiting to happen. Try not to leave your child when he’s hungry or tired and therefore more likely to break down.
- Practice Rehearse separating from your child at home. Announce that you’re going to the bathroom, for example, and will be gone less than a minute. When you emerge, announce that you’re back. “Those everyday practice opportunities help children understand the concept of comings and goings,” Rose says. “Just be consistent and reliable so your child learns he can trust what you say.”
With a new caregiver or baby sitter, you might ease the transition by leaving only briefly at first. You might say, “I’m just going upstairs to put on makeup. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” Your child may get less upset knowing you’ll be right back, and each successful separation and reunion makes the next one easier.
- Create a good-bye ritual Get down to your child’s eye level and give your kid your full attention. Smile and say calmly something like, “I’m leaving now. I’ll think about you when I’m not here, and I’ll be back at the end of the day to pick you up.” Give a big hug and add your personal touch -- a secret handshake or Eskimo kiss. Then leave the room and don’t come back.
For older toddlers, it can help to give a benchmark for when you’re coming back, like after they wake up from nap or after they eat dinner and have a bath. “Since they can’t tell time yet, it gives them a sense of security,” Rose says.
Don’t even think about slipping out without saying goodbye. “Kids learn that you’re not predictable and that they have to watch you constantly to make sure you’re not leaving,” Rose says. “Saying goodbye helps them manage their expectations and emotions.”
- Make peace with their reaction It may break your heart to hear your child screaming “Mommy! I want Mommy!” after you step out, but in most cases, the reaction is truly for your benefit. Once children learn that good-bye means good-bye, they’ll likely stop carrying on because they know it’s pointless. “As long as you’re being consistent and reliable,” says Rose, “it’s okay for kids to be upset.”
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