Start building independence early

Nearly all parents can relate—the pleading eyes, little hands clinging to your pant leg, maybe even a wail as they’re gently pulled from your side while you make your escape. Leaving a child who’s suffering from separation anxiety is one of the toughest battles we moms and dads face, and one that often leaves us baffled as to how best to handle the situation without making it worse.

According to Brian Mesinger, pediatric psychologist at The Youth Clinic for the past 25 years, there are two distinct types of separation anxiety: developmental and clinical.

“Separation anxiety that occurs in toddlers is considered a normal developmental stage,” explains Mesinger. “We usually see it around age 12 to 14 months as stranger anxiety, with kids getting extra clingy to mom, then again around age 2 when they’re trying to do things by themselves for the first time. These are both very normal.”

Less common is what’s known as clinical separation anxiety. Typically seen in older kids, this condition often goes hand-in-hand with a shy temperament and anxious attachment to a primary caregiver. Clinical separation anxiety can result in difficulty coping with regular activities, such as school and sports.

“Clinical separation anxiety becomes a big problem when it’s not caught and dealt with early,” says Mesinger. “If it goes on long enough it can lead to other negative behaviors, such as power struggles, which can be nearly impossible to correct.”

The best way to avoid battles down the road, according to Mesinger, is to start preparing early.

“Pay attention to the temperament you’re dealing with when kids are still little,” he advises. “If a child is shy and very attached to mom, start practicing for separations before they happen.”

Mesinger suggests leaving small children with grandparents more often, allowing them to wander into another room at home without immediately following, and letting them lead the way down the grocery store aisle, to help teach independence at an early age.

Equally important to preparing for separations early on, is handling them appropriately when they do crop up.

“The way parents deal with early separation anxiety can set the stage for how kids handle it down the road,” says Mesinger. “We need to reinforce independence by telling kids what a great job they did when they do attempt things on their own, and then leaving it at that. What we don’t want to do is reinforce the fear by constantly talking about it.”

Mesinger says it’s okay to do a trial run before taking a child to daycare or school for the first time, but once or twice is enough. After that, plan a goodbye ritual ahead of time, such as a high five, fist bump or hug, and follow it with a quick goodbye, then walk away.

“The longer you stay and drag out your goodbyes, the harder you’ll make it on your child in the long run,” he explains. “Over talking, baby talking, and showing concern on your own face can also have a negative impact on your child’s ability to cope.”

Mesinger suggests packing a transition object, such as a teddy bear or picture of mom and dad in the child’s backpack, and  letting teachers and staff members know ahead of time if your child might have difficulty saying goodbye, so that they can make themselves available at drop-off time to help with the transition.

“Check in with the teacher or daycare staff later to see how things went,” he says. “If your child was fine, or at least functional, once you left, then it’s okay. Remember that parents always see the worst of it.”

While in most cases it’s best to push through and trust that things will get easier, rather than bail an anxious child out of a difficult situation, there are times when it’s necessary to seek outside support.

“If you’re dealing with school refusal you need to see someone pretty quickly,” says Mesinger. “I get kids sometimes who have already been out of school for six weeks, and it becomes extremely difficult to get them back at that point.”

He says that when separation anxiety encroaches on other aspects of a child’s health, causing headaches, stomach aches or nightmares, it’s also time to turn to a professional.

In general though, the best route is to be consistent and steadfast in your commitment to your drop off routine.

“The hardest thing is seeing your child upset; at times to the point of what looks like a panic attack,” says Mesinger. “But when you get to that point, soothing them with your voice won’t work. You’ve really got to say your goodbyes and leave.”

Once your child has made it through his time without you, feel free to slather on the praise, just don’t dwell on it too long.

“The most important thing you can do,” adds Mesinger, “is be understanding, validate their feelings, acknowledge what a great job they did, and move on.”