Separation anxiety in children is completely normal but also something that should not be dismissed.
When my daughter first started daycare and was crying as I left her one morning, her childcare provider said to me “At least you know she loves you.” I remember thinking that love doesn’t feel that way. Your child crying as you leave is not a sign of love. It’s a sign of insecurity and fear.
There are a lot of reasons children cry. Love is not one of them. Love is on the positive side of the emotional scale. The feeling of love makes us feel good. It is a happy feeling.
If you are leaving your child and they begin to cry and grab onto you and generally not want you to leave then they are experiencing negative emotions. They are experiencing fear, insecurity, lack of control. It’s separation anxiety.
In these moments, it’s easy to want to dismiss their feelings and say things like “don’t cry”.
Whether their reaction makes sense to you or not, the feelings they are experiencing are valid. There is a reason they are feeling this way even if they can’t articulate it.
There are several strategies that you can employ to help your child (and you) in these moments. Here are 3 that I use the most that seem to work.
1. Ask them what’s wrong.
This may seem obvious but it’s not always what we do first. If your child is old enough then they can legitimately answer this question. If your child is very young, they may not be able to respond at all or they may only be able to articulate a portion (e.g. “I don’t want mommy to go”).
Even if your child is too young to answer, ask them anyways. Ask them as if they are fully capable of responding. Look into their eyes and be fully in the moment waiting for an answer. Pay attention to them. You might be surprised when the answer randomly pops into your head. And even if this doesn’t happen, sometimes the simple act of giving your child your undivided attention along with acknowledging to them that their feelings matter is enough.
2. Spend an extra few minutes with them.
Instead of being in a hurry to leave, go into the room and get them started on an activity. Or simply extend your morning drop-off routine. When Hailey started crying at morning drop-off I offered to take her to use the toilet before I left. Another time I asked her to show me the goldfish in her classroom.
Sometimes your child just wants a bit of extra time and attention from you. This also allows them to start playing, which refocuses their attention toward something they enjoy.
3. Tell them they have a choice.
As with all situations in life, we get to chose what we focus on and therefore how we feel. I have said things like this to Hailey: “Your crying won’t change the fact that I still need to leave. I have to go to work. You can chose whether you want to feel sad about it or happy.” Then you can go on to talk about the fun things you’ll do when you pick them up or the fun things they’ll do while you’re at work.
This lets them know that they have the power to control how they feel. It also teaches them to look for the positives in any situation.
Give these 3 strategies a try next time your child is struggling with you leaving. They may not work every single time but if you can get your son or daughter to a more positive frame of mind a bit more often then it’s worth it.