Most of us have suffered through a painful parenting moment of separation. Maybe it happened just the other day when you dropped your child off at preschool and she hung from you like a 35-pound necklace, begging, "Don't leave me, Mommy, pleeease." You felt beyond terrible as you drove away. But just because your child gets teary when you try to leave her doesn't mean it will always be that way. Separation anxiety is a normal part of every child's development, and it comes and goes. "It's often a positive sign because it means that your child is connected to you," says Claire Lerner, director of parenting resources at Zero to Three, in Washington, D.C. But since you'd like to get through school drop-offs tear-free (or go out to dinner without a tantrum, or leave the room without a "Where are you going?"), we developed this guide to understanding how your child experiences separation at each age -- and how to make the break less painful.
Right now, your baby doesn't understand that something can exist when it's out of her sight. For instance, if you hide her toy under a blanket, she won't look for it because she thinks it's gone for good. So imagine how your child feels when you disappear, even if you just go to the refrigerator. Six months is also the point when your baby begins to understand that she's a separate person from you. Her world depends on you and when she feels a break in that connection, she may panic.
"My mom was just playing with me a second ago, and now she's not. I'm afraid." "Mom left me alone in my crib. I don't want to sleep; I want to be held!"
Practice small separations each day to ease your baby's anxiety so she'll be prepared for bigger ones later. If you need to get the mail or start the laundry, let your child experience a moment alone and realize you'll come back.
When you leave, soothe her with a goodbye mantra. "Even though your baby can't understand you, she still finds the rhythm of your voice calming," says Paul Donahue, PhD, founder and director of Child Development Associates, in Scarsdale, New York. Say, "Mommy is going to leave the room. I'll be back soon to check on you. Mommy always comes back."
This is also a good time to start leaving your baby with a babysitter for a few hours so she gets comfortable with other adults. If she wails when you try to leave, you can let her cry -- most kids stop on their own after about 10 minutes. "Running back to calm her puts her in charge," says Dr. Donahue.
Your child is savoring the thrill of independence now that he can toddle around and explore on his own. He's moving away from you (literally and figuratively) -- sometimes a little too far. For example, he may follow a squirrel he's spied in the backyard, then panic when he realizes you're not close by anymore. "This back-and-forth is typical of this age," says Dr. Donahue. Kids crave the chance to roam by themselves but like to know that they can reach for you at a moment's notice.
"I can walk around the playground now, but what if I need my mom and she's not nearby?" "If I'm left with this babysitter, will my parents forget about me?"
Don't be surprised if your child starts clinging to a lovey now. A blanket or teddy bear can help him feel safe and connected to you no matter where he goes. It's fine to encourage the habit to make separations easier; experts stress that it's healthy attachment.
When you're at home, spend a few minutes apart from your child. For example, encourage him to play in a room next to the kitchen while you start dinner (to be sure he's safe, poke your head in without letting him see you). He'll learn that it's okay to be away from you for just a little while.
Taking the seriousness out of longer separations can help, as Jill Lankler, of Larchmont, New York, discovered. Her daughter, Isabel, cried every time she went to the babysitter's. "I realized that she hated the word goodbye," says Lankler. "So we made up silly words for it, like gobblygook. When it was time to say goodbye, I'd say the word and she'd laugh. Separations definitely got easier."
Children are starting to feel more self-sufficient and in control of their surroundings at this stage. But heading off to preschool or daycare can be overwhelming for a child and make her pine for her parents even more. For some kids, this is their first experience with a prolonged separation, so don't panic if it takes months for them to feel comfortable.
"What if I don't like it here and I feel sad?" "What if no one comes to pick me up?"
Send your child to preschool or daycare with a photo key chain attached to her bag or another reminder of home. Jonah Zinner, from Bend, Oregon, feels better about going to school when his mom tucks a small stuffed animal in his backpack. "He has a fit when he forgets it, so he must feel less anxious knowing that it's with him," says his mom, Porte.
It's also crucial to follow through on your promises. Be on time to pick up your child, which comforts her because she trusts that you'll be there when you say you will. Try rehearsing goodbyes at home to prevent cries of "Don't go!" says Tamar Chansky, PhD, author of Freeing Your Child from Anxiety. "Have your child be the parent and let her pretend to leave and come back. Being in both roles helps kids see that goodbye isn't forever," she explains.
Your child is finally ready to go to a "big school" (kindergarten) with the "big kids." He may be psyched -- but he probably wants to be Mommy's little boy at the same time. The thought of a larger building, new friends, and learning new things can trigger anxiety about leaving you. "Parents should actually be careful about using the word big too much," says Dr. Donahue. "Some children worry that this means they have to act more like grown-ups now."
"It's such a big building -- what if I get lost?" "What if I can't remember all my letters?"
Before the first day, try to take your child to meet the teacher, see the classroom, and find the bathroom. He'll be less likely to cling to your leg in terror on the first day if the school isn't brand-new to him.
If your child seems worried about the work, reassure him that although school is for learning, everyone learns at a different pace and doing what the teacher asks is the most important thing. Say, "The grown-ups are there to help you and everything is going to be okay; school is fun." Take some pressure off by letting your child regress a little at home, advises Dr. Donahue: "Children should know it's okay to still act like a little kid."
For some kids, getting familiar with a new place helps. The year before Tara Campbell started kindergarten at the Latin School of Chicago, her mom, Diana Aixala, did everything she could to expose Tara to her new school. "We went on a tour, and I took her to the school's carnival the spring before she started kindergarten," said Aixala. Tara was clingy in preschool, so Aixala wanted to make this transition a smooth one. "It took some time for her to get comfortable in her new school, but the familiarity helped a lot," she says.
Copyright © 2007. Used with permission from the September 2007 issue of Parents magazine.