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The Long Goodbye

You can sense it in the death grip your 7-month-old reserves for your neck when you attempt the morning handoff to his caregiver. Or in the tortured wail of your 14-month-old when you and your spouse try to leave the house for a rare evening out. Or in the tenacity of your 3-year-old, who, it seems, will have to be surgically removed from your leg when you try to drop him off at preschool. It's separation anxiety, and it's a childhood rite of passage.

Learning how to handle time apart is a tricky business, but it's a big step in your child's development (and yours) and there are important rewards. Separating from you helps her to expand the circle of people in her world, provides enriching new experiences, and exposes her to different ways of doing things. How kids react to this depends on their age, their development, and their disposition.

Bonding Babes

Though infants as young as 6 months old experience separation anxiety, parents can take comfort in the fact that it indicates both emotional and cognitive growth, says Elyse Lehman, Ph.D., professor of psychology at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. Attachment to a parent or caregiver is a sign that a baby is developing normally during his first year.

Two other developmental markers during this time are stranger awareness  -- a fear of new people  -- and object permanence, the understanding that things continue to exist even when you don't see them. "But a seven- or eight-month-old isn't yet able to reason that even though Mom's disappeared, she's going to come back," says Lehman. That's why a baby this age will often become upset or cry when his parent or caregiver leaves the room or even just disappears from his line of sight.

You can't avoid such situations, but you can minimize the angst. Be sure that the parent who spends less time with the baby gets a shot at one-on-one care early on and consistently, suggests Susan Ginsberg, editor and publisher of the newsletter "Work & Family Life." That goes for other close friends and relatives too. And, if possible, cultivate one or two reliable, loving babysitters.

Shannon Parker, a mother of three in Weston, CT, learned the hard way what it's like to have no support system. "I put off finding a sitter till my daughter, Ashley, was about eight months old. She carried on  -- she'd even throw up sometimes  -- when we'd try to leave her. But we stuck it out, and eventually my husband and I could go out to dinner and stay out more than an hour!"

For a smooth introduction to separating, try brief practice sessions  -- leaving your baby with a caregiver in another room  -- without actually leaving the house. Gradually increase the time you're apart. Never sneak out when she's asleep or distracted. Instead, ask the sitter to come 15 minutes early, then spend the time with her in your child's presence, demonstrating your own comfort. You'll be building in an adjustment period so that your child has a chance to scope out the sitter. Have the caregiver involve your baby in a favorite activity before you leave.

Let the sitter know your child's likes and dislikes, as well as his snacking and napping schedules. And be prepared to lend some support. "We changed sitters a while back, and when I called from work to check on things, my son, Nicholas, who was four, was having a hard time," says Lisa Freije, a mom in Boston. "I went home for lunch, not just to reassure him but to give the new sitter a break and reassure her." Feel free to share your perspective with caregivers. Compare notes. You'll all be able to handle your child's separations better.

Tenacious Toddlers

The most wrenching behavior of separation anxiety usually peaks between 12 and 15 months, says Lehman. Toddlers can cry loud and long and have developed a new trick: walking or running to follow you when you leave.

Still, a toddler has more resources to cope with goodbyes too. His memory is improving, and he can rely on it to soothe himself. Now when he sees you grab your keys, he recalls not only that you've left before but also that you've returned to him. So it helps to reinforce positive memories of partings with goodbye rituals. If you always leave him with three nose kisses or consistently deliver a see-ya'-later wink, the routine becomes another tool for reassurance.

When you leave, your child will take his cue from you, so make your parting short and sweet. "Do it with conviction," says Ginsberg. "Futzing around makes goodbyes difficult."

It's best to choose your words wisely. Avoid saying "Don't worry," in case your little one wasn't going to. Even "I'll miss you," while well-meaning, may be confusing  -- your child may wonder whether it's okay to enjoy himself while Mommy's missing him. The best bet? Something like "Mommy will be back. I love you. Have fun." Then, says Ginsberg, "Go!"

Clingy Little Conquerors

From about 18 months to 2 years, a child's increasing comprehension (the more she knows, the more she can conjure up worrisome situations), as well as her increasing mobility, may add to her need for security. So a once-adventurous toddler may seem suddenly reticent and an already cautious child may seem clingy. But for all kids, independent or not, this is a good age to practice separating.

By now, your child's attachment to Mom, Dad, and other regular caregivers is firmly established, and she uses it as a sort of security base while venturing out to conquer her world. "You'll see this in action on playgrounds all the time," says Lehman. A father and his 18-month-old arrive at a bustling playground, and the child goes off to check out other kids. Soon she runs back to Dad and stands next to him for a minute, regarding the scene. Then, as if she's been recharged, she runs off again. As her level of security increases, it may be enough to glance over and see that Dad's still there.

If your child hasn't had much experience away from you, test the waters with group activities like tumbling or music classes, or informal playgroups, where she can hang out with other kids while you are within sight. If possible, give her time to survey the scene and then let her decide when to leave you; being the one who walks away puts her in control.

Possessive Preschoolers

Because 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds have usually had some experience with separation, the goal at preschool shifts from building trust  -- that you'll come back  -- to feeling comfortable in a new environment on their own. "There's a lot that preschools can do to tip the scales in favor of positive experiences," says Marilyn Larkin, director of the Village School for Children, in Glen Rock, NJ. Larkin swears by the power of a preview. "We hold an orientation day right before school starts. The whole family comes to get the lay of the land. Kids seem to take immediate ownership, pointing out things in the classroom to their parents. The kids can see for themselves  -- close enough to the start of school to make it meaningful  -- that the place gets their parents' stamp of approval."

In addition, a "phase-in" plan starts first-timers with three to four other children for about half an hour; the number of kids and the amount of time gradually increase over the first week until the new preschoolers are experiencing a regular session with the full complement of classmates.

Of course, even the best preparation doesn't work for every child. For some, a preschool situation may be too different from anything they've experienced to feel comfortable without a significant adjustment.

After three days of peeling her weeping 3-year-old daughter off her leg, Elizabeth Costanza of Wyckoff, NJ, wondered whether she'd misjudged Christina's readiness for preschool. "Those rough separations are hard to take," says Ginsberg. "Ask your child what her fears are and listen to what she says. Do a puppet play and let her be the little girl who doesn't want to leave her mommy. You'll get clues to what's on her mind, and she'll get help working out her anxieties."

Costanza trusted her instinct (confirmed by the teachers) that Christina was enjoying school once she got past the goodbyes, and each day her daughter found it easier to go into her classroom on her own. Two things were especially helpful for Christina: She began to bring her favorite bear with her, and she discovered the joy of friendships.

Now a 5-year-old "upperclassman," Christina is doing just fine. And she helps comfort her younger classmates when they have occasional separation jitters of their own.

Lynne Cusack's last feature for Parenting was "Love Objects," in the February 1998 issue.

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