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Separation anxiety usually begins around 8 months and can affect how your child interacts with unfamiliar faces. Typical symptoms include crying, tantrums and visible distress when Mom is not in the child’s view or a stranger appears on the scene. It’s not unusual for a mother to experience significant anxiety and guilt when her crying little one pleads for her return. Minimize the distress of separation anxiety for you and your child by implementing a few tactics.
Plan Ahead to Minimize Discomfort
If possible, plan your departure when your child is well-rested and well-fed to facilitate a goodbye without tears or fears. Transitions tend to be more stressful when children experience fatigue, hunger or illness, and saying goodbye to Mom only exacerbates any existing crankiness.
Moms use routines as tools to provide a sense of security and teach expectations for daily events. Create a goodbye routine, and practice it faithfully prior to every exit. The routine should be warm, reassuring and brief. Link the time of your return to a meaningful event, such as nap time or bath time. For example, calmly state that you'll return before snack time, give your child a hug and leave. Remember that your child will resume playing shortly after your departure, so don’t linger or return to provide additional comfort.
Plan Dress Rehearsals
New caregivers and settings can escalate your child’s symptoms of separation anxiety. Whenever possible, introduce a new babysitter or setting slowly over a period of time before leaving your child. Prior to beginning a new daycare facility, arrange several brief visits that culminate with a positive outcome. For example, follow the experience with a trip to the park or an ice cream parlor, and talk about the colorful pictures on the wall. Help your child discover something new and exciting with each visit.
Your parenting skills enabled your child to acquire a strong, secure attachment to you; your child’s reluctance to be separated from you is evidence of a job done well. Remember that the same attachment that contributes to your child’s distress will help her to build new skills that foster independence and decrease anxiety. Moms can expect the symptoms of separation anxiety to end gradually when children are between 2 and 4 years old.
Becky Swain's first publication appeared in the "Journal of Personality Assessment" in 1984. Her articles have also appeared on various websites. She is an adjunct college instructor, licensed school psychologist and educational consultant. She holds a Master of Science in clinical psychology and a Doctor of Philosophy in educational psychology, both from Mississippi State University.