Separation Anxiety: Babies and Toddlers
When we understand Separation Anxiety, we shift from avoiding to supporting it.
Important aspects to keep in mind when it comes to Separation Anxiety:
It is a normal stage of human development.
It's a result of Secure Attachment.
It usually happens in along with Strange Anxiety (please don't force your little one to interact with strangers. Avoiding people they don't know is healthy and biologically programed. Adults are the ones with mature brains and must be understanding that this is part of development)
Sneaking out without saying goodbye will only increase anxiety, since children will always be in a vigilant stage, thinking you can disappear at any moment. Trust is fundamental!
Your baby is really afraid of not seeing you again. Their brain is not fully formed yet and object permanence ( the child's capacity to know that things, object and people, continue to exist even when they can't see or hear them is still developing).
Separation Anxiety shows up in different stages of development, more commonly around 8 months, 12 months, 18 and 24 months - sleep is also impacted, just in case you are wondering.
How do I know my child is going through a Separation Anxiety peak?
Usually around Separation Anxiety peaks, you will find yourself going through major exhaustion from parenting. Your little one may be needing even more proximity, waking up more often at night, maybe clinging more, and not really wanting for you to be out of their sight. Separations can become more challenging, with more tears.
Although hard on both, you and your child, this is normal! They are not spoiled, and you aren't doing anything wrong. Rushing this process will result in more difficulties down the road.
Children need to depend first, to when developmentally ready be able to become more independent. This is not something we can teach! So when someone says your child is too attached, take a deep breath and let go! You are doing great and "too attached" doesn't exist.
It is important though to take sometime to reflect about your own feelings regarding these times. It's not easy to navigate such an emotional stage, especially when the messages we receive are so incoherent.
How to navigate this stage while also supporting my child's attachment needs?
Parental leave in non-existent in many countries - unfortunately - and little has been done to change it. It is painful to separate, especially for children going through these stages. Depending on the age, there are different way to help, but the most important one is to help your child build a bond with the caregiver who will be watching them. This takes time because your little one will slowly build the trust they need that two things happen: their needs will be met by the person caring for them and that you will return.
Children have are really good absorbing how we feel about things, so when you are not comfortable with the person caring for them in your absence, they won't be comfortable either. So make sure that the person watching your little one, understands about co-regulation and what separation represents to a child. It takes several weeks for children to establish this bond, so being patient as they adapt is an act of compassion not only towards our little ones, but ourselves too.
"I see you are upset. I need to go and will return. I can't wait to hug you when I'm back"
It is hard! Some parents feel guilty, worried and upset about leaving. It helps asking the caregiver to send you a photo or message, to update you when your child feels better.
Once you are back, make sure to give your child the hug you promised. Tell them how much you missed them, and now you are back.
How to prepare little ones for transitions in the midst of separation anxiety?
Familiar people and familiar environments can ease transitions, but not only that, having other caregivers be part of your child's circle will help you through times when you are burnt out and need a little break (even a 15 minutes walk outside by yourself).
If you are planning to take your child for an afternoon at grandma's for example, make sure you tell them in advance. You can give an idea of when that's going to happen (your child awareness of time happens through the rhythms of the day, so you can say something like "After you eat, we will get into the car to see Grandma. Mom will leave you with grandma and pick you up after your nap")
During the first year of life, attachment happens through the senses, so having a transitional object (aka Lovey) with your smell can be exactly what your child will "hold on to" in your absence.
Keep in mind that this is a phase. It is challenging... and a phase.