Separation Anxiety is completely normal behavior and nothing to be embarrassed by. Should your child not have an intense phase of separation anxiety, count your blessings. Many parents are not that lucky. Remember that object permanence plays a large role in anxiety, generally making an appearance between 7-9 months old. Object permanence is the ability to remember objects and specific people that are not present. While babies learn about parents leaving initially, they are not convinced yet of your return. As they develop the trust that you will return, their anxiety will lesson. Below we highlight some suggestions for both sitters and parents as they navigate the process.
* Parent Suggestion: Play separation games with your child starting as early as they might engage with them. Practice your separation & return through short peek-a-boo games
* Parent Suggestion: Offer the child transitional objects – a blanket, lovey or stuffed animals are a healthy way to remind them of you in their absense
* Parent Suggestion: Make goodbyes short & sweet. One Sensible Sitter notes, “I find that if the parents can avoid prolonging the period between when the sitter arrives and when they (the parents) leave, that helps a lot. In other words, if the parents can be ready to go out around the same time the sitter arrives, make sure there’s a friendly rapport between the sitter & the child, and then simply give a kiss goodbye and leave (not indulging a lot of drama), that works best. If this period of time gets prolonged, the toddler can sometimes sense that the mom feels guilty or that it is difficult for her too, and I find that there are a lot more tears in such cases! In general my experience has been that if the mom is firm and relaxed, the child will stop crying a minute or two after she leaves, and then can be easily distracted with a fun activity.”
* Don’t sneak out! Even though you make have the urge to sneak out while all seems calm, let your child know you are leaving. Narrate the day for them so they know that you are leaving AND you are coming back. Keep in mind what they have a reference for. “Mommy is going to the office” is very abstract unless they know your office. However,”mommy and daddy are going to have dinner” has a more familiar connotation attached to it. Encourage your child and care giver to wave from the window if they are having a hard time.
*Continuity is key: At Sensible Sitters we strive for continuity among caregivers. Creating a relationship between caregiver & child is critical. It also allows for the sitter to become familiar with your child’s routine, and in turn you will be most confident leaving your child. You can also then prompt your child before the sitting session, “remember Maya? Maya is coming today. Remember how you guys had so much fun playing with blocks? Maybe you can do that again.”
* Sitter Suggestion: If the child is old enough to understand day to day tasks, speak to them calmly and convey where their parent might have gone. Use as much (simple) detail as possible, so as to calm the child while not avoiding the topic. “Mommy went to go grocery shopping. What do we buy at the grocery store? She is buying milk, bread, fruit. What kind of fruit do you like? Bananas, apples…”
* Sitter Suggestion: redirect! In a city such as New York City, I might take a toddler or infant to the window and encourage them to find & count taxis. In a suburb, try for animals or birds.
Suggestions from sitters within the Sensible Sitters Network:
If the child does get upset I usually say “it’s okay. Mommy/daddy always comes back” and after a few times it seems to sink in and the child will sometimes say the phrase to me when their parent leaves for the day! As for a child who isn’t easily consoled I usually try to distract them with another activity or idea in order to help them cope with their parent leaving. Some parents will provide me with this distraction ahead of time. One parent used to give me stickers and would say Kristie has stickers for you! I’m going to work – goodbye! And the child was so distracted by the stickers he would say bye and run over to me.
I find bedtime can be hard for kids with separation anxiety. I’ll usually remind the child that their parents will be home and will pop in for a hug and kiss, even if they’re sleeping.