The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) estimates that nearly 80% of children and teens suffer from some form of anxiety disorder, and separation anxiety disorder occurs frequently in children ages five to seven, with some children suffering separation distress as early as eight months of age.
If your child repeatedly throws tantrums, cries, or clings to you whenever you leave the house, your child may suffer from separation anxiety. Although your child will likely grow out of this behavior, the tears, screams, and pleas may make day care drop-offs a heartbreaking experience.
So what can you do to calm your child and soothe his or her fears before you leave?
1. Give Your Child Time to Adjust
Ever hear the phrase, “familiarity breeds comfort”? Your child will feel safer spending time without you if he or she is in a familiar environment.
Before you leave your son or daughter alone at day care, spend the first few minutes, hours, or sessions in the room with him or her. Point out fun and exciting objects for your little one to play with. Introduce your child to the caregivers and other children. And share your enthusiasm and confidence every step of the way.
If your child still doesn’t seem comfortable, encourage him or her to bring along a beloved toy, blanket, or book. The item will help your son or daughter maintain a connection to home and family, even if the day care doesn’t feel like a familiar, comfortable place just yet.
2. Start a Goodbye Ritual
When things feel out of your control, you may naturally feel more stressed and anxious about your day. If you don’t know when your in-laws are visiting, if your boss wants you to organize a meeting, or whether your mortgage will close, you may feel at your wit’s end trying to pull your life together.
The same concept applies to your child. When he or she doesn’t understand why you are leaving, where you are going, who to play with, or what to do while you’re gone, the unknown variables may scare your son or daughter to tears.
Regular routines help your child feel more secure with the day, giving him or her exciting events to look forward to and minimizing stress. When you establish a routine of a secret good-bye wave or special good-bye hug, you can quickly reassure your little one that the day will go smoothly, just like the day before.
However, avoid creating long, drawn-out good-byes with your rituals. The extra fanfare and stalling may train your child to continue crying so you don’t leave.
3. Assign Your Child a Job or Task
Children have notoriously short attention spans. Many experts estimate that a child’s attention span loosely measures at the child’s age, so if you have a four-year-old, you can expect him or her to focus on a single object for four minutes. If you have a seven-year-old, he or she may stay interested for seven minutes.
Due to the short attention span, you might not have to work hard to distract your
child from the fear and pain of your absence. A new book, toy, snack, or activity could quickly turn your son’s or daughter’s frown into a delighted giggle or smile.
Before you leave for the day, assign a small job or task that will demand your little one’s complete focus for a few minutes, such as greeting other children at the door, picking up the toys in the room, or reading a book on the shelf. Promise your son or daughter that if he or she finishes the task that you’ll reward him or her for the effort. Your child will be so intent on finishing the task that he or she won’t mind that you’ve left.
Just don’t use the distraction as cover for sneaking away. If you leave without a good-bye, your child may feel even more confused and fearful and you’ll lose some of his or her trust.
Remember to Be Patient With Your Child
The above tips and tricks can help keep your child calm, relaxed, and content while you are away. But remember that separation anxiety comes and goes in phases as he or she develops. Your toddler may go through a rough patch for two weeks, only to run off to day care one morning without a second glance. Or, your child may seem like a social butterfly for years only to revert to an anxious state when he or she goes to school for the first time.
To get through these difficult times, simply be patient with your little one and seek professional guidance as needed.