A Father's

Separation Anxiety

Try to think about things from your baby's perspective for a second: For most of your life she controlled everything that happened in her world: who and what came and went, how long they stayed, what they did while they were there.

But lately her grip seems to be slipping. Things seem to be coming and going all by themselves. And the people she thought she could always count on to be there for him have developed a nasty habit of disappearing just when she needs them most. Even worse, people she doesn’t know—and isn’t sure she even wants to know—keep on trying to pick her up and take her away. The Universe is clearly in chaos, and given the way things are going she can't really be sure that the people she’s most attached to will ever come back.

All this, according to researchers Philip and Barbara Newman, is what separation anxiety is all about. In your baby’s mind, the best way to put herself back in the driver's seat is to cry. "That's it," she says. "If I cry, my parents won't leave."

Here are some things you can do to help your child manage her separation anxieties:

  • Be firm but reassuring. Tell the baby where you're going and that you'll be back soon.
  • Don't say you'll miss him. He'll only feel guilty that he's making you unhappy. He'll also wonder why you would do something to deliberately make yourself unhappy. And finally, if you're sad or upset at leaving him, that's what your baby will think is the appropriate reaction to separation.
  • Don't sneak away. If you're leaving, say good-bye like a man. Tiptoeing away will undermine your baby's trust for you.
  • Don't give in to crying. If you're sure the baby is in good hands, leave--with a smile on your face.
  • Don't force. Let the baby stay in your arms for a while longer if he needs to and don't make fun of him if he wants to bury his head in your shoulder.
  • Try to use sitters the baby knows. If you have to use someone new, have him or her arrive 15-20 minutes before you go out so he or she can get acquainted with the baby. Either way, train sitters in your baby's bedtime ritual.
  • Leave while the baby is awake. Waking up in the middle of the night to a strange (or even a familiar but unexpected) sitter can be terrifying.
  • Be patient. Don't trivialize the baby's feelings about your leaving. You know you'll be back; the baby isn't so sure.
  • Play. Object permanence games (pages 000 and 000) help reinforce idea that things--and especially people--don't disappear forever.
  • Establish consistent routines. Doing things on a regular schedule (such as dropping the baby off at the sitter's immediately after breakfast or reading two stories right before bed) can help your child understand that some things in life can be counted on.
  • Develop a strong attachment. Singing, playing, reading, talking together all help build a strong, loving bond between you and your baby and help her feel more secure, And the more secure she is the less she'll worry about being abandoned.
  • Ask questions. You'll have a better chance of finding out what your child is afraid of if you do. For most kids, for example, being alone--not the dark--is what scares them most. So make sure your child has a toy or other security object at night and, if she leave the light on so she can see she's not alone.
  • Give the baby plenty of space. If you hover, she'll get the idea that you're afraid of leaving her by herself and that there's actually something to fear from being alone.
  • Distract. Encourage independence by suggesting that the baby play with his train set while you wash the dishes.
  • Relax. As discussed earlier, babies will pick up on your mood--if you're nervous they'll figure that they should be too.
  • Let the baby follow you around. Builds a sense of security and confidence that you're there--just in case she needs you.
  • Be gentle. Give your baby time to adjust to new situations and people.
  • Know your baby's temperament. If your child has a low frustration tolerance, she won't want you to leave her and may cry all day after being separated. Your slow-to-adapt child won't want you to leave either, but when you do, she'll usually cry only for a few minutes. She may cry again when you return, though, because your coming back is as much of a transition as your leaving was.

As hard as separation anxiety is for your child, it’s really a positive (although frequently frustrating) sign, marking the beginning of his struggle between independence and dependence. It's a scary time and you can see his ambivalence dozens of times every day as he alternates between clinging and pushing you away.

Not all kids get separation anxiety. Those who have had regular contact with lots of friendly, loving people will probably have an easier time adapting to brief separations than those who have spent all their time with one or two people. They'll be more comfortable with strangers and more confident that their parents and other loved ones will return quickly.

©2008, Armin Brott

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It's clear that most American children suffer too much mother and too little father. - Gloria Steinem

A nationally recognized parenting expert, Armin Brott is the author of Blueprint for Men's Health: A guide to a health lifestyle, The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-Be; The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year, A Dad's Guide to the Toddler Years, Throwaway Dads, The Single Father: A Dad's Guide to Parenting without a Partner and Father for Life. He has written on parenting and fatherhood for the New York Times Magazine, The Washington Post, Newsweek and dozens of other periodicals. He also hosts “Positive Parenting”, a nationally distributed, weekly talk show, and lives with his family in Oakland, California. Visit Armin at www.mrdad.com

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