the relapse: preschool age
For parents, this may be the most exhausting form of separation anxiety. Just when you think your child's developed a little independence, the tantrums and tears come roaring back, usually thanks to a new stress such as a new sibling, going to school, an illness in the family, or moving to a different house. Fortunately, the anxiety relapse usually lasts only a few weeks, according to experts. "With a sibling, it's about attention," says Abbot. "They worry that they come second now, that their parents are going to forget about them." In the case of a new school, the child knows that Mommy will come back but may nonetheless feel unsafe or uncertain without her. "Suddenly the child is in an unfamiliar place and isn't sure whom to trust. Plus, he has to share the attention of the teacher with all these other kids," says Abbot. No wonder some of them get overwhelmed!
how to get through it:
let your child know it's okay to feel nervous Catch yourself if you reflexively say, "Be a big boy." Instead, give your child a hug and say something like "I know that you're nervous. Let's think of another time you were scared but it was okay. Remember the first time in the pool?" You'll help show him that his feelings are normal -- and that he'll be able to handle them. "We're often so proud of an autonomous child that we don't fully appreciate that the stepping-stone toward that autonomy involves a decent amount of dependence," says K. Mark Sossin, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Pace University.
plan some extra one-on-one time After Jennifer Lehr brought home her new baby, her 2½-year-old daughter, Jules, threw a fit whenever Lehr had to tend to little Hudson. So Lehr decided to make a point of giving Jules extra attention, especially when she'd fix her meals. "I'd slow down and let her be involved," says Lehr, who lives in Los Feliz, CA. "We'd make a smoothie, and Jules would drop in the fruit and pour in the milk and push the button." Experts say the additional one-on-one time makes the child feel confident in the parent's love and less threatened.
develop a predictable bedtime routine This is a good idea in general, but it can be especially helpful when your child is going through a tough time. It helps show him that there is order in his world. You can even make a posterboard listing the exact times of nighttime tasks. For example: 6:00, dinner; 6:20, bath; 6:40, pajamas; 6:45, brush teeth; 6:50, storytime; 7:00, bedtime.
do your best not to cave in A preschooler who is experiencing separation anxiety may also regress in other ways, such as asking for her pacifier back or insisting on sleeping with you. When you're exhausted or fed up, it's only natural to take the path of least resistance and ease up on the rules you've established. "But more than anything, a kid needs structure and routine," Barzvi says. "If you give her Binky back, it's going to make
it a lot harder to take it away again. Instead of altering the routine, give your child extra hugs and kisses. Plus, by maintaining the sameness, you're sending the message that there's nothing wrong." Of course, we all give in sometimes. So if you find yourself being more flexible than you planned, cut yourself slack and try again.
Suzanne Schlosberg is coauthor of The Essential Breastfeeding Log, out next month.