I remember very well when both of my kids entered the separation anxiety stage. One clung to me like a life raft. The other screamed any time I got near. Both reactions made my head spin.
I’ve been reading some interesting facts about separation anxiety.
1. Separation anxiety tends to start somewhere between the age of 8 and 12 months, and can last through the last half of the second year.
2. Pediatricians and child development experts say separation anxiety is an important emotional milestone for the child—even though it doesn’t feel that way for the parent.
3. Separation anxiety is a healthy sign that your child has deeply attached to you and is now aware of what’s familiar and not familiar—and gets anxious with the unfamiliar.
As a mom who experienced both the clingy child and the push-me-away child, I have to admit, I didn’t like either situation. For the child who was clingy, I felt suffocated. I remember my child literally hanging onto my leg and sitting on my foot as I washed dishes, tried to carry the laundry basket, and just wanted some space to myself. Plus, I felt I was on call 24/7. This child would wake up at night and come find me, wanting to sleep with me, wanting to be with me every single minute. And not just next to me—on top of me or in my lap.
Dropping the clingy child off at child care or with my parents was a nightmare. This child, who also had a very intense and loud personality, could throw tantrums that I felt should make the world-record books. I felt like I was damaging him by leaving him because he howled such deathly sounds. Even though I knew a lot about separation anxiety, experiencing and feeling it was awful. It was hard to imagine that this kid would recover once I left, although the child care providers always reassured me that this happened. It also felt like this stage would never end because it seemed to go on for a very long time.
When my other child wanted nothing to do with me during the separation anxiety stage (since Dad was the one this child clung to), I felt like I wasn’t doing my job as a parent. No matter what I did, this child often said, “Go away, Mommy,” and “No Mommy today!” It was embarrassing to go into public and have this kid yell this type of sentiment while strangers looked at me as if I was abusing my child.
I experimented with distance. I was relieved when my push-away kid would finally let me be in the same room. Little by little, I worked my way closer, although I never could get as close as Dad. That’s because I just wasn’t Dad, and my child only wanted Dad.
It wasn’t until I became the editor in chief of Adoptive Families magazine when I realized what a great thing separation anxiety was. Families who adopted children from orphanages agonized about their kids not having separation anxiety. These kids would wander up to any stranger and treat the stranger as well as a parent. I’ve seen it. As a safe stranger, it was fun to interact with these young children, but I was also aware of how risky it was for this to happen.
Adoptive families breathed a big sigh when their kids finally did show signs of separation anxiety, although this often happened two to six years (depending on how old their child was when the child was placed with them). Then these parents were very embarrassed. Imagine a 5- or 8-year-old making a scene about separation anxiety.
I’ve also seen kids push away both parents when they have a grandparent who cares for them a lot or is in child care full time. This is a healthy sign, although it can be very difficult for the parent.
That doesn’t mean you have to wait it out. There are things you can do. I quickly learned to allow extra time in dropping off and picking up my child from child care—or from a grandparent’s home. This gave my child time to warm up to new surroundings and new people. With the clingy child, I also created a good-bye ritual, such as kissing my child on the forehead, saying good-bye, smiling at my crying child as a caregiver held him, and walked out (cringing) as he screeched. I eventually laminated a photo of myself and left it with him. He liked holding the picture, and he knew he could look at it whenever he missed me. He liked it even more when I laminated a picture of him and carried it in my purse.
Now that my kids are older (one is in college and the other is in high school), I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. The child who was clingy and couldn’t get enough of me as a toddler was the one who pushed me away (and pushed hard) as a teenager. The child who wanted nothing to do with me as a young child drew closer to me as a teenager (but sure fought with Dad).
It’s difficult when a healthy developmental milestone for your child is hard on you as a parent. A wise parent told me that the process of parenting is a dance between stepping toward your child and learning to let go. Separation anxiety is a hard dance, but it’s an important one.
American Academy of Pediatrics, Caring for Your Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5 (New York: Bantam, 2009).
Benjamin Spock, M.D., and Robert Needlman, M.D., Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care (New York: Pocket, 2004).
*Image Via Upsilon Andromedae – Flick’r photostream