Most children go through a mommy phase, or a daddy phase, or whoever spends the most time with them. You know the one – they won’t leave your side, they cry every time you leave the room, it’s as though you haven’t spent 24 hours a day with them for the last however many days… which you have. So what gives? How do your help your little one understand that it’s okay (and even good) that you’re going and that you will indeed return? When saying “suck it up” just doesn’t cut it, try the following ways to help your child be without you, happily.
1. Age matters.
How old is your little one? This is an important question because children typically learn the concept of object permanence around 4 to 7 months of age, although it may be as late as 18 months until they have become truly familiar with the concept.
Object permanence is the concept that when an object leaves it isn’t gone forever – it can come back. And this applies to you – if your child hasn’t yet gotten object permanence then they may not know that when you leave you can, and will, come back.
There are easy ways that you can help work on this concept with your child such as playing peek a boo – hide behind a sheet or towel, then pop back out! Hide and seek can be another good game and doesn’t have to be played with people – you can always hide their favorite stuffed animal and help your little one go to find him.
You can talk it out too – “Daddy went to the store, then he’ll come back”.
2. Safety and security.
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that safety is the second most important thing to humans after physical needs are met, like being fed and hydrated. Before we can achieve things like friendship and confidence we need to know that we are safe, secure and loved. This is where you come in as a parent and a caregiver – it is important that your child feels a sense of security and safety with you before they can feel confident enough to be without you. Lots of snuggles, cuddles, and loving affirmations come in handy here.
Another easy way to help your child feel safe is to have a solid routine. Children thrive on routines and knowing what’s coming next: so, if you are able to say, “Mommy is going out and will be back after naptime,” that may help ease the transition.
3. Talk about it.
As pointed out in suggestion #1, repeating a simple mantra in a rhythmic or melodic way can be soothing to a child. Try something simple like “Mommy goes away, and then she comes back”. Get your child to join in if they are verbal enough: even if they just say the last word, you are enforcing the idea that whoever they are missing will return.
If they are verbal you can have a full-blown discussion about what it is they want and need. Talk about their emotions and tell them it’s ok to be sad (or scared or whatever they are feeling) and give them strategies to deal with it. They could maybe take a family picture to look at or they could find a special friend to play with.
If you don’t know what to say – let someone else say it for you! There is great children’s literature out there you can read with your child to help put their mind at ease. The kissing hand by Audrey Penn is only one of many books that deal with the issue of separation anxiety.
4. Say goodbye.
It can be very tempting to sneak out when your child is playing or distracted but it is better to say goodbye to your child and to let them know that you’ll be back and, if possible, when you’ll be back. This will help them to feel less abandoned and more left in good hands.
5. Familiar faces can help.
If you have family or friends close who are willing to watch your child they are a great place to start when leaving your child. A familiar face is often more comforting to a child than being left with a stranger. If you do need to use someone unknown to the child consider having a warm up session where you, your child and the caregiver all play together. That way your child gets comfortable with that person and the transition to you leaving can be easier.
6. Simply leave.
In order for your child to realize that you are going to go and that you will indeed come back you need to GO. Maybe this means hiring a babysitter and having them watch your child while you go downstairs (not far!) to do the laundry. When they are okay with the short close trip, try going a little further. Go all the way to the backyard to do the gardening!
Encourage the caregiver to play it as if you have gone – encourage them to play, sing, eat, do anything but watch you from the window. This step is helpful for you too as you know you are there in case your child becomes inconsolable and you need to step in. That being said, try not to step in too quickly. Although tears can be deadly for parents – no one wants to hear their baby scream! – remember that crying is a form of communication for not yet verbal children and they may just be saying “this is different” or “I’m not used to being without mommy”.
7. Start small.
When you venture out for the first time, try and be brief. Go on a date to the local ice cream parlor, or do some grocery shopping. Make sure the short trips go well before extending to a longer time away, like the movies or dinner out.
Also know what an appropriate length of time is for the age and developmental stage of your child. If you’re leaving at nap time, you may be able to be away for longer, whereas if you are leaving around feeding time for a breastfed baby your outing may have to be short.
Getting rid of separation anxiety is going to take time and practice (both on your part and the child’s) but if you never leave them it is not likely to improve. As with most things in parenting, it’s good to remember the phrase “this too shall pass.” While it may seem like forever now, it won’t be long before they are running out the door without remembering a goodbye kiss. So take a minute and give them an extra snuggle, reassure them that you love them very much and that when you leave, you will come back! Now that your child is comfortable being left with other people what are you going to do with all that extra free time?