Axing Anxiety

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Why is separation so difficult and why does it produce so much anxiety?
Parenting columnist Ouiam El Hassani shares her tips on how to ease the difficulties of separation with your children.

We’ve all been there. It is bedtime and our little ones begin stalling with: “I need some water” or “one more story,” and sometimes: “I’m afraid,” occasionally accompanied by one big crocodile tear rolling down their precious cheek. From their lips to our hearts, these little pleas convey a much larger desire – to keep parents close, routinely disguised as a last-minute request, the last one being the most compelling in telling us why.

Until approximately six years of age, young children are not fully developed as separate beings. They are highly dependent on others for caretaking, and staying close is one of the brain’s biggest preoccupations.

Young children can be full of frustration, tantrums, resistance and opposition in the face of separation. Alarm in a child often arises at night-time, accumulated from the day and activated by the point of separation that sleep represents.

From a parent’s perspective, it can help to remember that if our children didn’t want us close, we wouldn’t be able to take care of them. Being attached is the superglue that binds us to each other and provides a sense of home, comfort and belonging. Attachment is the doorway through which missing and separation anxiety enter.

Toddlers and pre-schoolers also come with shyness instincts that make them fickle when it comes to receiving care from others. This is the result of healthy brain development by six months of age, where a child zeroes-in on one primary caretaker. At this time the child will begin to display stranger protest towards others and show a clear preference towards whom they want to be close. The instinct to shy away from strangers is nature’s way of ensuring they follow the people who are responsible for caring for them.

Here are some tips to ease your child’s separation anxiety:
Don’t battle their behaviour nor increase separation through discipline. It’s important not to battle against a child’s behaviour from pursuing their parent to the fears that appear at night – these are all just symptoms of the underlying separation problem. If forms of discipline are used that exacerbate the separation, such as time outs or consequences, then a child’s emotions will be more stirred up and their behaviour more difficult to manage.

We can’t blame young children for preferring their parents but we can take comfort in knowing they can attach to other people too. Given their strong shyness instincts, it is important that we introduce them to the people we want to care for them. We can’t leave these relationships up for grabs but must prime it by showing them we sanction the connection. This can include warmly introducing them to each other, pointing out similarities and common interests, and conveying that you like this person and trust them. A child will follow those to whom they are attached, and if you demonstrate that you like the caretaker, they will follow suit with time and patience.

Tears are part of the brain’s inner workings to release emotional energy when stirred up. Tears are not a problem, they are the answer when the missing is too much. What is important is to ensure a child has someone they feel comfortable with in sharing their upset, in crying or retreating to for comfort. When they can count on someone to help them emotionally, it will build trust and security with their caretaker and help them adapt to the separation from parents.

Attachment is one of the most important forces in the universe that binds us to each other. Our kids want to be with us, and we want to maintain their love. What we can do is put our energy into making it easier to be apart from us by focusing on connection.