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Tips to Help Ease Separation Anxiety

At some point, every parent and child are faced with the milestone of a first-time separation. For some it doesn’t happen until the child starts preschool. For others, it happens on their first day of daycare or staying with a sitter. But regardless of when it happens, the experience can be frightening for children…and heartbreaking for the people who love them.

This separation anxiety has the potential to become debilitating…but there are things you can do to help. That’s why we’ve created this list with 6 of our favorite tips for helping your child get used to being separated from you for a period of time.

1. Start Small

It’s best if you can get your child used to being separated from you before a long separation must take place. Practice stepping out of the room, out of the child’s line of vision, for brief moments. As your child grows accustomed to the separation, extend the length of time. You can tell your child you’re leaving…I’m going to fold laundry but I’ll be back in five minutes.

Next, try leaving your child with a family member or trusted friend while you run a quick errand. By taking these baby steps, you’ll instill in your child a certainty that mom and dad always return when they leave.

2. Read Books About Separation

If you are a regular reader of our blog (thank you!), you know we almost always recommend reading books to children to help them understand or process a subject, and this is certainly the case with separation.

The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn is a classic that has been used by parents for decades to help children understand and process separation anxiety. In the book, the author describes a ritual created by Chester Racoon and his mother—each day before school, Chester’s mom kisses the palm of his hand before dropping him off. Any time during the day that Chester finds himself missing mom, he presses his kissed palm to his cheek.

3. Create Your Own Goodbye Routine

After you’ve read The Kissing Hand, brainstorm with your child to come up with your own goodbye routine. You may want to trace your own hand, kiss it, and let your child take it with them as a physical reminder of your love.

Or you may want to come up with own routine, like:

  • A big hug and a high five before drop off
  • A special song you sing
  • A secret handshake only known to the two of you
  • A note you leave in your child’s lunch box

4. Avoid Sneaking Out

Though it may be tempting, avoid sneaking out of your child’s class (or the babysitter’s home) when your child isn’t looking. Doing so only increases your child’s fear and can lead to distrust.

If you are dropping your child off at school and fear your little one may have a meltdown, share your concerns with his or her teacher. Educators are well versed in shifting attention and giving them a heads up will help them tend to the needs of your child.

If you are leaving your child with a babysitter, give the caregiver tips on what might distract your child—a favorite toy, tv show, song, etc.

Then go through your goodbye routine with your little one and let them see you leave.

5. Get Good at Not Giving In

There is nothing more difficult than walking out of a room when your child is in the middle of a meltdown. It feels counterintuitive when you want nothing more than to turn back and give them one more kiss or hug.

As tempting as it may be, your child is best served when you leave. Turning back only reinforces to your child that a meltdown garners positive results (more hugs and kisses and delayed leaving), which means future separations will end in more tears.

For your child’s developmental wellbeing, let your goodbye be goodbye and avoid turning back.

6. Talk About Their Day

When you return to your child, avoid making a big deal about the fact the you were separated…Oh, my poor baby! I’m sorry I had to leave you for so long. You must have been so sad!

Instead, greet them happily, get them settled in at home, then ask them about their day. Ask leading questions…What was the best part of your day? What made you laugh? What new thing did you learn?

By focusing on the good things that happened during the separation, you’ll help them realise it’s ok to be apart and that fun can be had in the process.

And so…

Getting your child used to extended time apart is hard on everyone, but by slowly increasing times of separation, creating goodbye rituals, and talking about the day, you can help your child learn that separation is only temporary.