It’s hard to say whom separation anxiety hits harder — you or your child. I experienced my fair share of bad good-byes, especially with my daughter Maddie. On her first day of preschool, for example, she urgently whispered, “No, Mama, don’t go! Don’t leave me!” I still remember that viselike grip on my neck as I presserd her small wet cheek against mine. Those tiny arms obliterated my resolve to keep our parting short, to kiss her good-bye once and then hand her over to her competent, caring teachers. I did exactly what they had advised against: I stayed until snack time every day that week.
This was hardly my first experience with separation anxiety, but it was one of the most painful. Not that it’s ever much fun. There were many mornings when, having pried a sobbing child off my shoulder, I left them with their loving, familiar babysitter, then walked around the block in the pouring rain so I could spy in the window. All was quiet on the home front, confirming what baby-sitters, teachers and grandparents always claim: “The crying stops the minute you’re out the door.” But I still longed to know whether the pain of these separations could leave lasting scars.
Researchers and psychologists who study separation anxiety have managed to shed some light on this and their work suggests ways to ease the anguish of saying good-bye. One key factor appears to be the issue of control or, rather, a child’s lack of it. A two-or three-year-old has very little say in his parents’ comings and goings. So when we announce, “We have to go out for a little while. Grandma will stay with you,” there’s not much he or she can do except register a complaint — loudly.
It makes sense, therefore, to help a child gain more of a sense of control. With Maddie, I learned that by choreographing a very predictable exit routine in the morning, I could leave for work or run errands with minimal upset. We either picked a book or video she liked and decided together that I would leave when we finished the book or “when Big Bird coughs.” I once made the mistake of lingering beyond the cough, only to hear Maddie say impatiently, “Okay, Mama, go now.” I practically skipped out the door.
The other critical factor is learning to limit how much you say or do as the time to go approaches. I’ve witnessed enough scenes in the hallways of my children’s schools to know that a parent who lingers and tells her child repeatedly not to worry is guaranteeing a long goodbye. After the third time Mom says, “It’s going to be fun! There’s no need to worry. Mommy will be right here when you’re finishes. So don’t be sad,” even the calmest kid will begin to think, ‘Hmmm. Maybe there is something she’s not telling me.” The result: You’ll be there until snack time every day.