This week my sister and her husband went away over the weekend for work marking the first time that she had left all of her children at my parents house. A house which they know, love and feel comfortable in. And yet, the situation left everyone feeling that something was missing.
The anxiety that comes from not being around the people and things that ground us is known as separation anxiety and can affect anyone from the youngest baby to grown adults! It can manifest itself at sleep time, school drop off time, bath time and even during homework. But whilst many people are aware that separation anxiety exists and is real, there is much conflicting advice on how to handle it and help children to feel more safe and secure when an object, person or routine is different.
Separation anxiety doesn't only manifest itself at the time of separation, it can happen prior to it (often seen at bedtime); or even after ( children becoming more difficult or clingy after a period of separation). In whatever guise it comes, it is something that we see a great deal of at Kids on Track. Here are our top 5 tips to helping you and your family survive this stage no matter what the cause or duration!
1) FOCUS ON THE POSITIVES: When letting your children know that a separation is going to occur and in preparing them for it - remind them of the positives FOR THEM! Examples may include toys they have at Kinder that you don't at home; a quieter environment to study for teenagers or an opportunity to spend extra time with their grandparents as you will be away. Try not to focus too much on why you are going as the logic will be lost in their emotional want to have you closer. When the separation is finished, remind them of how amazingly they have coped with it and emphasize how proud you are of them.
2) DISTRACTION IMMEDIATELY BEFORE LEAVING: Whether the anxiety is a daily one eg: sleep or school or occasional eg before you go out to a wedding; don't dwell on it immediately before it happens. Of course it is important to validate your child's feelings when it does happen but where possible don't preempt it. The best way to do that is to ensure that immediately prior they are focused on something else that will distract them from thinking about it too much. eg: their audio book playing in the car on the way; a bedtime checklist to help them focus on the activities they are doing or going to buy / make a gift for where they are staying while you are away.
3) MAINTAIN CONSISTENCY: During a period of separation anxiety your child may find comfort in routines or in daily activities which provide self confidence and allow them to feel a sense of control. Discussing the routine of their school day; developing a formalized morning and evening routine and keeping their set days for extra curricular activities are all ways of ensuring that they feel that not everything they rely on for security has disappeared.
4) KEEP IN TOUCH: When it comes to longer separations eg: at least one night, keeping in touch is the key. Technology now makes it easy and using facetime or video calls in the morning or before bed can really help children to feel settled. If you are away, make sure when you speak to them you ask them about their activities so they feel you remember what they are doing. Rather than these questions being generic " how was your day?" it is better if you can ask " how was Karate tonight?" For children who are younger, instead of focusing on talking, you can read a book to them via video before bed. Other ways of keeping in touch are to leave a little gift for each day or to write them a letter which you can ask someone to put in their lunchbox. Before going away, if you know your child will worry about when you are coming back, it can be helpful to leave them with something of yours and ask them to look after it for you. That way they know you will definitely be returning.
5) MAKE THE RETURN EXCITING: No matter how long the period of separation is for, as soon as it is over, you want your children to be able to be excited that you are now reunited. If you have been away for a couple of days, think about bringing them a present back with you. If it is the length of a school day, think about an after school treat or some time with you that is special after school. If it is an anxiety affecting sleep, make sure the mornings are positive and that you don't spend time discussing your disrupted night!
These tips can all be useful in tackling the symptoms of separation anxiety in your homes. The most important of all though is to show your child throughout that they are loved; listened to and that their feelings do matter, even if you can't change the fact that separation needs to happen.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!