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It’s common for your toddler to cling to your leg when you leave for work, or a kindergartner to miss mommy while at school. However, separation anxiety can be even more difficult for only children and children raised by a single mom, says Dr. Wendy Rice, a licensed psychologist in Tampa, Florida. “Separation anxiety is a common phase during child development, in part due to innate fears that the parent may disappear if out of the child’s immediate sight,” says Rice. “If fear that the parent will disappear when the child leaves their side dominates, insecurity takes over and separation becomes a frightening and frustrating experience for both parent and child.”
As a single mom, it’s important to maintain a close relationship with your child while helping her cope with separation anxiety, using activities and strategies to help her gain independence when mom cannot be right by her side.
To help your child with separation anxiety, it’s important for single moms to build mutual confidence and ensure a joyous reunion. Start small with short separations, says Rice. “If your child is so anxious that just being in another part of the house is a challenge, find something that your child enjoys doing that's a good distraction, and have him or her practice being by themselves in that room,” she says. “Eventually, increase the distance and the length of time.” Be sure to make the experience manageable so your child feels successful, and then encourage short stays with another adult or sitter.
Separations are most difficult for only children when in unfamiliar surroundings with unfamiliar caretakers, says Rice. Therefore, it’s important for single moms to take the time to talk with their children about the schedule, the caretaker and the environment. “Make sure the child is familiar and comfortable with the substitute caretaker and environment,” says Rice. “And give the child time to talk about his worries.” Rice also recommends informing the substitute caregiver about your child’s personality, likes and dislikes, specific worries and fears, daily routine and ways that he is soothed.
An only child may sometimes feel that if he's away from his mom, that something bad will happen to her, says Christina Steinorth, California-based psychotherapist and author of “Cue Cards for Life.” “Most children go through a clingy phase, but separation anxiety is different in that it lasts longer and, in some cases, becomes more severe, causing a disruption in daily activities such as going to school.”
Help your child trust that you will return and that caretakers are capable of providing exceptional care. Allow your child to get to know caretakers before leaving them for short periods of time, recommends Steinorth. “It helps to use the same caregiver each time,” she says. “Consistency in all aspects really helps children with separation anxiety. And in time, your child will learn to trust and bond with other caretakers, which will further help reduce his anxiety.”
To help your child feel safe and secure at home, minimize any stressful situations that may happen in front of your child, says Steinorth. Even though it’s difficult, as a single mom, to balance work, errands and household tasks, practice consistency with your schedule. “Be on time when you pick up your child, and keep your schedule at home predictable,” recommends Steinorth. “Aim to keep your home and yourself as calm and stress-free as possible – your child will pick up on this energy, and it will ease some of the anxiety she is feeling.”