We have all been there. Whether it is leaving your child at home for the first time with a babysitter, or the first day of drop off at preschool or daycare. This little person is clinging to you as if life as they know it is about to change forever.
There are many ways that parents can help prepare their children for separation, long before the separation takes place. It requires planning and deliberate effort to build confidence in your child to ease the process so your little person does not hold on to you for dear life as you walk out the door.
Let’s put this in perspective. It is extremely natural for a young child to feel nervous or anxious saying goodbye to mommy and daddy for the first time. Crying, tantrums and clinginess are all normal and healthy reactions to separation in early childhood. For the most part, despite the huge drama which might ensue as you are putting your coat on, children are very quick to bounce back and forget the fact that you have left the house within 5 minutes.
So what can we do to help the first experience of separating be positive for both the parent and the child?
Don’t make the first time away from home too long. Show the child you are returning after a very brief period. Help them ease into the idea of you being way from them.
Do practice separating from the child. Leave your child with a caregiver while you garden outside or run quickly to the store.
Don’t change caregivers too often. Kids respond very well to consistency in all areas of their life. Make sure the child knows and feels safe with the caregiver. Introduce the caregiver on an earlier occasion and have them work with your children while you are home. This way the caregiver can get to know your child and you too can feel comfortable leaving them alone together.
Do be patient and consistent with the messages you send your children. Follow through on your promises to come and see them when you get home at night, or to make pancakes together the next morning. Kids remember EVERYTHING.
Don’t give in. Give your child reassurance that they will be just fine. Setting limits will help the adjustment to separation. Don’t just leave and expect them to wing it.
Don’t make a huge ‘to do’ when you are leaving. The less drama, the better, when you close the door behind you.
Do say goodbye to your child, express your love, and leave. As hard as it is to do, do not stall. This process only drags it out for your children and you end up doing them a disservice.
Don’t leave the child who is on the verge of a meltdown because supper is 20 minutes late and a knock at the door interrupted naptime. Children are more likely to have separation anxiety when they are cranky, hungry and tired. Practice separating from your children during positive moods such as after being fed, or after a nap. Include a ‘goodbye ritual’ such as an extra hug, a kiss through the glass, or a high five.
With understanding, patience, and preparation, most children outgrow their need to have mommy and daddy around. Some children, however, experience separation anxiety that may even worsen over time, despite the parents’ best efforts. If this separation anxiety is excessive and continues into the school years and begins to interfere with school, the formation of friendships, and participation in sports or extra curricular activities, this may be a sign of an anxiety disorder. Intervention at this stage would require the help of a professional counselor in order to determine together the strategies that can help your child.
More and more I hear from friends and colleagues about how much worrying and anxiety their children experience on a regular basis. In talking randomly with my daughter’s teacher about the type of work that I do, he mentioned that with every year of teaching, more and more of his students are struggling with worries, fears and phobias.
Is this a new phenomenon, or are we just able to label the diagnosis more accurately?
Being able to correctly identify the difficulties your children are experiencing impacts the way in which you choose to parent them.
For instance, it is very important to distinguish the different reasons your children appear to be ignoring instruction. Are they anxious? Are they defiant? Are they lazy? Or are they merely so distracted by what is worrying them that they cannot focus on anything else at that moment?
Disciplining a defiant child is a lot different from disciplining a worrying child, even if the presenting behavior is the same. Parents might have to use various forms of discipline with each of their children to ‘punish’ for the same ‘crime’.
So what can we do to help these children?
Anxiety as a disorder does not go away. Kids who worry suffer from low self-esteem more often than other children. They need to be empowered. They need to feel in control. They need to be loved for who they are. Telling them everything will be ok, or to not be so sensitive, etc., will not only not help them, but could in fact hurt them. We cannot ignore their feelings, and we have to praise them like crazy.
There are also many teachable techniques that can be used with children to help them overcome their worries. Most of the techniques, which are the quickest to learn and have the most successful outcomes, are from within the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) framework. CBT is a type of therapy that has proven to be highly effective to treat anxiety in both adults and children.
Progressive muscle relaxation, deep diaphragm breathing and various forms of hypnosis are just some of the exercises within CBT, which can help your children. In addition, continued exposure and opportunities to face their fears are always encouraged. If kids see that they can succeed at something that they were reluctant to even try, this will be a huge boost to their self esteem and ability to better face this fear the next time. If they tend to worry about the same things over and over, remind them of their past successes.
With the proper support and with the proper guidance from a professional, children can learn to cope with their fears or worries. We cannot always be there to ‘save our kids’.
Over time, as our children mature, it is hoped that with practice and exposure, that these techniques become ingrained within them and they are capable of implementing them on their own.
As adults, people might complain that while they were growing up their parents were too strict or too protective or that they did not get to do all that they wanted. You will never hear anyone complain that they were too loved or too accepted for who they are and the person they have become.
For more specific instructions on how to implement cognitive behavioral therapy, and how it can help those suffering from anxiety, please feel free to get in touch with me.
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