Afraid to say goodbye
Most babies experience separation anxiety, but with these handy tips you can nip the problem in the bud, writes Terèsa Coetzee
ONE DAY, YOUR BABY was a happy, confident baby who giggled as she stretched out her arms to be picked up by random strangers, the next, she started to kick up a huge fuss as soon as you just got up to use the bathroom.
Even your best friends refuse to look after her for an hour or two because she screams uncontrollably the minute you drive off in your car.
Experts call this sudden and strange behaviour separation anxiety. And yes, it is completely normal for a child to become unreasonably attached to the adults in their lives and then to feel intense fear and uncertainty when this adult is gone for a while.
“Separation anxiety is a normal phase of her development,” says Cape Town clinical psychologist Annamarie de Villiers.
“It is important for you to understand that separation anxiety is a normal and necessary phase of a child’s development process. It rears its head in children between the ages of 6 to 12 months and can continue when your toddler is between 2 and 5 years old.”
WHERE DOES SEPARATION ANXIETY STEM FROM? BETWEEN 6 AND 12 MONTHS
“Separation anxiety is linked to a baby’s mental development,” says Annamarie.
“Under the age of six months a baby explores her environment mainly with her senses. During this time the main sources of fear are loud noises, temperatures that are too cold or too warm and the lack of proper care.”
Who takes care of a baby is initially not that important to her, and any loving person can calm a baby. (That is why parents are often far more emotional when it comes to leaving the baby with someone new, than baby herself.)
But between 6 and 12 months the brain begins to associate sensory information with movement.
“A baby begins to learn that her own movements can have sensory consequences. When she stretches out her hand she is able to feel and touch. She can pick up items and even taste them,” says Annamarie.
It is during this time that separation anxiety usually first surfaces because your baby’s brain is not yet capable to deal with the fact that someone is not gone simply because they can’t see them anymore. When your baby does not see you she assumes that you left her permanently because you are not in her line of vision.
At this age babies also start to realise that there is only one mom and one dad. They do not understand the concept of time just yet, so if mom or dad leaves the room even for just a second – all baby knows is that they are gone. Possibly forever!
BETWEEN 2 AND 4 YEARS
At this age toddlers start developing their imagination, says Annamarie. “They are not able to distinguish what is fantasy and what is real. This is when they develop fears of the bogeyman, monsters, and baddies who lurk in the dark. They are still scared to be separated from their parents.”
Luckily a toddler’s attention can be diverted quickly with a range of fun activities so that she can deviate from her separation anxiety. At some stage or another, however, your toddler will need to realise that a new environment or setting is safe and that a parent or primary caregiver will come back after a short absence.
Console yourself with the knowledge that the child who is now glued to your hip will have enough confidence not to kick up a fuss when you drop her at school by the age of 5. Situations like moving house, a change in babysitter and the birth of a new baby in the house can cause separation anxiety to return.
THE BIGGEST GIFT IS A GOOD SELF-ESTEEM
The healthier your child’s self-esteem, the less likely they are to experience separation anxiety.
Annamarie says children with a healthy self-esteem feel safe and secure in who they are. They tackle tasks with confidence. These children handle being away from parents and caregivers much more easily because they feel secure. This will help children build a healthy self-esteem: ✓ A stable home and family environment ✓ Routine ✓ Babies mimic what they experience. If mom is anxious, baby will be too ✓ Unconditional love and acceptance from a parent ✓ Positive attention. Praise her for good behaviour. Don’t withhold love and attention when she misbehaves ✓ Spend time with your child. This builds a solid foundation for all her future relationships.
WHEN DO WE NEED HELP?
Separation anxiety becomes a problem when it is no longer age-related, meaning it surfaces in children older than 5 years, says Annamarie. The anxiety would last for more than four weeks and put a strain on the normal family life. Speak to a professional if this is the case.
WHEN MOM IS MORE ANXIOUS THAN BABY
A parent’s emotional anxiety about being separated from their little cherub can add to that of the child. “Examine your own feelings,” says Annamarie. “If you are more anxious than normal, seek help. If you want to handle your child’s separation anxiety you have to show that you can go through life confidently.” YB