Attachment and separation anxiety
So many parents understandably get worried when their child cries, throws a temper tantrum or becomes clingy when they say goodbye to them. This response from your little one can be heart breaking but it is normal for your baby or toddler to get upset when you say goodbye to them. This reaction is called separation anxiety. It is a natural stage of development and shows that they have formed a healthy attachment to you.
What does a secure attachment look like?
A baby who has a secure attachment with a primary caregiver (e.g. parent or nanny), will explore their environment and interact with a stranger when their caregiver is present. This secure attachment is important for their general development and more specifically for their social and emotional development later on. The person they are attached to acts as a secure base for them to explore and feel safe. When that person leaves, the child may get upset and cry, throw a tantrum or cling to the person who is leaving. Every child is different, but this secure attachment usually starts to develop at around 7-9 months old. By about 18 months old most toddlers have formed attachments to multiple people. This often includes family members and their nanny.
Separation anxiety is when a child experiences distress when separated from a carer that they are attached to. The intensity and frequency of separation anxiety varies between children, but it usually starts when the child forms their first genuine attachment (around 7-9 months). Separation anxiety may increase and become more intense at around 14-18 months and usually decreases in intensity and frequency after that, although for some children bouts of separation anxiety may occur until age 4.
Although separation anxiety is developmentally appropriate it can still be distressing for those involved. The following tips can help make the process easier (Robinson, L., 2018):
Ease into/practice separation: slowly ease your child into being away from you by leaving them with a caregiver for short periods at a time at first and then gradually increase the time spent away.
Develop a leaving/goodbye routine: your child is more likely to feel calm about your separation if they know what to expect. Develop a quick little routine that prepares them for your departure. Make sure that it:
- Lets them know that you are leaving and will see them later
- Is not drawn out otherwise it will appear to be a bigger deal than it is
- Does not involve false promises (e.g. ‘you and nanny are going to the park’, if it’s not true)
- Have the nanny/person staying with them distract them once you are gone
Familiar surroundings/objects help: leaving your child in a place that they know and where they feel safe can help. If this is not possible encourage them to take along an object (e.g. a teddy or blanket) that they are attached to as a source of comfort.-Be consistent: as hard as it is set limits and reassure your child that they will be fine while you are away.
Have a consistent caregiver that you leave them with: try as much as possible to keep the same caregiver, as changing caregivers causes inconsistency and can distress your child and make separation anxiety worse.
So next time your little one has separation anxiety, remember the above tips and that it is normal and they will grow out of it.
Written by Amy Wright
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