Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: Separation Anxiety, Your Child and You

If you ever doubt whether you’re a super-important person, try walking away from your toddler when she appears engrossed in dot art markers. What seemed to be a carefree child will immediately morph into a howling, anxiety-filled kiddo wholly dependent on you for safety, companionship, and a general purpose in life.

Honestly, this is often nice, especially if you’re haunted by existential questions like what am I doing with my rapidly diminishing youth and does Evangeline love her mom more than my kid loves me because Evangeline’s mom lets her decorate cupcakes? (No, by the way.) Having a person you adore completely fall apart at the possibility of your going to the bathroom alone—well, it kind of feels good. You feel special.

Of course, there are also a few drawbacks. Maybe you have encountered them:

1. It’s inconvenient and—dare I say—annoying.

Yes, using these words to describe attachment sounds a little bit horrible; but really, how would you characterize the feverish screams accompanying your attempt to move 10 feet away from your kid?

2. It causes guilt.

It could be work; it could be preschool drop-off; it could be finally peeing after you’ve held it for three hours. But eventually, you’re going to walk away from your kid; he is going to freak; and you’re going to feel terrible. Of course, parenting is all about guilt, and of course, you’re making all kinds of horrific mistakes sure to doom your kid to therapy later in life, but feeling guilty for going to the bathroom just in time to prevent another bladder infection is a bit extreme.

3. It hurts your kid.

Not to minimize your inconvenience and guilt—that totally sucks—but the panic your kid is enduring is worse. Imagine that you’re scuba diving and your oxygen tank keeps walking away. This is life for your kid.

So yeah, separation anxiety is pretty tough. But, it’s also a normal, appropriate part of your kid’s development, so she deserves your accommodation as you both get through it. Accommodation, however, is not the same as encouragement. The ultimate goal is to show your kid that she’s safe without you, not establish a dynamic where your kid controls your every movement.

I acknowledge that this sentiment is not universally shared. Please refrain from sending me whatever Buzzfeed link you’re ruminating about; I am already aware that many babies reportedly lead happy lives literally attached to their devoted mothers, and that you may wish to recreate this world for your own offspring. If that sounds like a good plan to you, I wish you luck and warn you that you might not really like this article.

But please do consider whether this will truly prove an ideal life. Yes, your kid’s attachment is of vital importance but have some faith in that attachment. It’s not going to break if you get your kid out of your hair every now and then. And as important as attachment is, other things are important, too: things like learning to trust that people can leave and come back and there’s more than one person who can keep you safe.

You can impart the lesson that people go away and come back in many ways, such as peek-a-boo, stories about separating and reuniting, and phrases like “Mommy always comes back!” If these suggestions leave you ravenous for more activities of this type, your pediatrician will have additional ideas.

All of this, however, is just prologue; the real action comes when it’s time to say goodbye to your screaming kid. I’m assuming you’ve screened whoever is staying with her and that you’ve made sure they click, since that’s pretty basic. But these tips will help, too:

1. Don’t wait until your kid’s happily engaged with the babysitter, then sneak off.

While this may save you an unpleasant separation, it’s really a jerk move.

2. Don’t tell your kid goodbye, then rush back to comfort her when she fusses.

Not only will this bewilder your kid, but it will also make you very late. It also annoys the sitter.

3. Put on a happy face.

Yes, you’re totally stressed out, but don’t let your kid know. She won’t understand that your anxiety stems from love, guilt, and frustration. She’ll assume you share her skittishness about leaving each other’s sight.

4. So when it’s time to go, just go.

Well, don’t just go—give your kid a warning and a few minutes to prepare before you head out, then give him a loving, confident goodbye, and then go. And as you walk out the door (finally!), definitely remind your kid that he is safe without you. Hearing yourself say it will remind you as well.

Credit: Elaine Rose Glickman

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