Top Tips . Dealing with separation anxiety after the holidays

Getting back into a routine after family holidays can be difficult. Sleeping and eating routines may have been disrupted and general activities have been different. Working parents may have had much more time with their children than usual. Hopefully this was lovely for everyone but it may be difficult for you to go back to work and for your child to start up their usual child care routine again. Separation anxiety – tears, screaming, clinging etc – is very common and a completely normal stage of development. And it’s never easy for parents to handle. Some children never experience it; others go through various periods throughout their childhood. It varies hugely from child to child.

Here are techniques you can use to help alleviate the upset for your child and some understanding that might help you feel less stressed too – and therefore be calmer and more consistent, which in turn helps your child. As with all children’s behaviour, your reactions have an impact on the frequency, intensity and duration of the behaviour.

Overall, do remember that your child’s concern about you leaving is a sure and important sign that there is a healthy attachment between you. For now, they may not believe they can cope without you, and they may feel unable to do anything to bring you back, hence the panic, but eventually they will develop coping strategies and feel safe enough on their own. For others it’s just that they would just rather have you around more.

Babysitters- Try to leave when the going is good – not when your child is tired, hungry or unsettled. And always try to introduce carers beforehand, so your child gets a chance to recognize them and bond.

Develop a routine for saying goodbye – keep it short and sweet and stick to it! This will create familiarity and therefore some sense of security. Don’t go back, however hard it is. It’s fine to call later, and check how things are going, but do leave it a good 15-20 minutes to give everyone a chance to settle.

Talk about how they are feeling calmly – rather than encouraging them to suppress their feelings which inevitably leads to difficult behaviour, as the unrecognized emotion tries to escape, and they won’t learn how to deal with the emotion. If they say how they feel say “Thank you for telling me how you feel. Let’s have a big hug.” Remember it’s not your job to take away their feelings of discomfort –it is your job to help them manage such feelings. When you’re prepared to talk about their intense emotions it makes the feeling less overwhelming or scary.

Allow your child to be upset – don’t negate or deny or ignore their feelings by telling them to be a big boy/girl and not to cry. Instead acknowledge it’s hard to say goodbye and accept they may feel sad when you go out, or leave them at nursery. Young children often can’t put into words how they feel so it’s up to the adult to describe their feelings for them. “You wish mummy didn’t have to go. You’re feeling sad and maybe worried.” Allowing these emotions to be expressed does not make the emotions or the behaviour itself worse; in fact it alleviates the stress these emotions are causing.

Explore with them ways they can cheer themselves up – not only does it help in the moment, but it also helps build up a sense that they have control of their emotions. Sometimes children can draw on the magic properties of a talisman (like a pebble) you’ve given them that gives them courage and comfort or you could give them something of yours (like a hanky) to keep close by.

Descriptively Praise them whenever they are brave, make the best of things, are flexible or adaptable, or similar. For example: “you didn’t make a big fuss when you skinned your knee just now even though I could see it hurt. That was brave of you. You told me you were thinking of the cupcakes we’re going to make when we get home –what a great strategy that is!’”

And bear in mind you will be experiencing your own version of separation anxiety. When faced with intense emotions in our child, our own emotions are strong as well. It can be overwhelming in terms of testing your patience and resolve, and many parents feel guilty. Don’t be tempted to trick them and sneak out without them noticing – it only avoids and often worsens the situation by breaching trust. Instead, find yourself a calming strategy – breathing slowly, have a mantra such as “it won’t last” and use it. Remember that this is a phase that won’t last but also that you are doing the important job of coaching your child to deal with their emotions which helps them in so many ways throughout their lives.

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