5 Ways to Help Your Child Deal With Separation Anxiety

Family Matters on 02.27.12
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Photo: Ashley Webb / Creative Commons

A mere two months ago, I was able to drop my daughter, Alex, off at the gym daycare without incident. She would play and have a good time, and I'd be able to have a relaxing workout. It was a win-win.

From the research I've done, I feel it's important for her to get a little bit of time away from me each day so that she understands she can feel safe and loved in the company of people other than her parents. In a year or so, I imagine a half-day at pre-school will be good for her. I don't want that time away from me and into the arms of a new caretaker to be a jarring transition.

I'd also like her to be around other children and toys for novel learning experiences now on a regular basis, rather than being limited to the tiny world of her own living room. So an hour a few days per week in the gym daycare seems to be a good solution.

Separation Anxiety Looms Large

Then I took a hiatus from working out. (Big mistake, on many levels.) Since I stopped bringing Alex to the gym daycare, I noticed that even short trips out of the house had her asking to be home again. This wasn't a good trend for my fun-loving toddler.

When I returned to the gym with Alex for the first time on Friday, it did not go as planned. When the caretaker, whom Alex knows very well, reached out her arms to take Alex from me, it was meltdown city. Alex frantically clawed her way up my body like a feral cat, trying to reach the top of my head. I took her outside the door for a moment to calm her down. But when we went back inside the daycare, she went bananas again.

This Is Not Fun

For my own mental health, this workout was absolutely nonnegotiable, so I let the caretaker know where she could find me, kissed my wailing baby goodbye and stalked off to the stairmill for a brief-yet-torturous 20 minutes. I'd planned a longer weight training session that day, but it was obviously not in the cards.

The whole time I worked out, I stared at the entrance of the workout room in case someone from the daycare needed me to rescue Alex. I was almost hoping they would, since it would put us both out of our misery. When I went to pick her up, she was sitting on the lap of the caretaker. I was informed that she cried, on and off, for the 20 minutes I was away.

What Could We Do Differently?

I know the answer is not, "Keep her home." I'm not doing either of us any favors by staying at home, sliding down the slippery slope of turning us both into squirrely agoraphobics. So again today I bucked up, determined that we were going to the gym. However, I did not want a repeat of Friday.

1. Give a Verbal Heads Up

I let Alex know well ahead of time that we would be going to the gym this morning. Then I mentioned it periodically throughout the morning so she wouldn't forget and be surprised when the time came. I explained what I had to do before we would leave. I had to put my shoes on. I had to put her shoes on. By the time we were ready to leave the house, she was probably happy I stopped talking about it and got the show on the road.

2. Bring a Beloved Object

This morning when I lifted her out of her crib, she clung to her Softie Bear and brought it downstairs with her. Normally, Softie Bear is a crib dwelling creature. But I thought, "Hmmmm. What if Softie Bear were to come with us to the gym?" Alex was delighted to bring Softie Bear to the car with her. This was new. This was fun.

3. Bring a Distracting Book, Toy or Activity

Then once in her carseat, I handed her one of her favorite books, Hippos Go Berserk. Another light bulb went off.  Why can't the Hippos book come with her to the gym? I know one of my reasons for bringing her to the gym is novelty, but if she's not happy, then all the novelty in the world is wasted in that scenario. So until she's comfortable, a favorite book is a big help.

4. Go When You'll Have the Caretaker's Attention

I know when the room is full of kids tearing around, making tons of racket and throwing toys, it can be a more overwhelming experience than necessary for Alex.  Plus, the caretakers already have their hands full and they aren't able to give full attention to a kid who is missing momma. Going when it's quiet saves stress for a kid who is dealing with separation anxiety.

We went earlier than usual this morning to beat the rush. The room was completely empty of kids save for one middle-school boy playing basketball by himself, which meant guaranteed one-on-one attention for Alex.

5. Give Easy but Specific Instructions to the Caretaker

I'd mentioned to the caretaker in the past that Alex likes books, but when the daycare is busy, I know that little tidbit is often dismissed as passing chitchat, as if I'm talking about the weather.

This time I explained that if Alex seems upset, a great solution is to read her a story. I also asked the caretaker if she would please read Alex her book. I stressed that Alex loves books. I don't care if I seemed insane about pushing the book issue. BOOKS! BOOKS! BOOKS!!! So there.

Winning

When I dropped her off this time, Alex happily gripped Softie Bear instead of me. She actually went willingly into the arms of the caretaker, and then waved her book around in the air, probably to stress the point her crazy mother just made.

I had a full 45-minute weight lifting session, which is the best mood booster out there for an unhinged mother. When I picked Alex up today to go home, we were both happy as clams.

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