The other day I was dropping my 3 year old off at preschool and, despite him knowing his teacher, having kids that he likes in his class, and us talking – on the drive over – about all the cool stuff he was going to do that day, he still broke down sobbing when it was his turn to go into the classroom. It took several minutes to extricate myself from his simian/constrictor like grip around my neck, then I told him that I loved him and couldn’t wait to hear about his adventures, and then let his teacher lead him into the classroom. But his voice followed me down the hall, breaking my heart, “Mommy please don’t leave meeeeee!”
Separation anxiety is a normal part of child development. Up through about 8 months of age, infants are still getting to know their environment so they tend to accept changes more easily. But once they have learned to trust their caretakers and surroundings, the lack of familiarity with a new person or place can result in them feeling threatened or unsafe. This fear translates to a range of expression such as crying, sleep issues, and tantrums. As children grow and learn more, their increased cognitive capabilities and awareness helps ease this fear so separation anxiety, and the expressions of it, tend to diminish. This typically happens around 2 years of age.
Typically…. As a military family our constant is change. We have had 4 homes in 10 years. In that same time Daddy has been deployed for over 3 years. He has also spent an additional 2 years away for training. Then this past year, he began time as a “geographic bachelor” and now spends weekdays at his duty station then travels home for the weekends. So despite everything that I do to keep things stable at home – from routines, to recordings of Daddy reading, to picture albums, to phone calls or video chats – change is inevitable.
In truth, the deployments were actually easier with regard to separation anxiety. Because change is a trigger, the constancy of it being just me and the kids for extended periods of time helped them to acclimate much better. But separation anxiety hit us the hardest this past year when my youngest was 2 years old and Daddy began “geo-baching.” Sometimes Daddy is home for the weekend, but sometimes he needs to stay at the office to work. Sometimes he is home in time for dinner on Friday night, sometimes the kids don’t see him until Saturday morning. Most of the time Daddy comes home, but sometimes we go to him. How do you explain Semper Gumby to a preschooler?
Following are a few ways that we have been coping. I’m sure that there are many other hints and suggestions – I’d love more ideas!
- Discuss the basics. What is Daddy’s job? Why does he do it? Look at pictures of him in his office, in the field, or doing things that he commonly does while away.
- Talk about the things that the family does together and keep tangible reminders of time together. Make photo albums or story books of “adventures” like a trip to the zoo. But even a walk around the neighborhood can be turned into something special.
- Give Daddy a picture or a special object that he can take with him wherever he goes. Then have Daddy take pictures of himself with that object in different locations and send the pictures home. This may be a little “Where’s Waldo” or “Flat Stanley” esque but this way the child can see that Daddy is thinking about him.
- Use a calendar. A preschooler’s sense of time is a bit wonky but a one week calendar that can be marked off at the same time each day can help a young child to visualize how long until the next reunion.
- Know the root cause. Fatigue and hunger play HUGE roles in a young child’s behavior. A breakdown at 5 PM might come with a crying jag about missing Daddy, but dinner (or a healthy snack, though I have been know to use a doughnut in a pinch) might be what is necessary to get over the bout. And a tired child just isn’t able to hold it all together. Naps and adequate nighttime sleep are crucial for giving a young child access to everything in his “tool box.”
- Understand. Through the crying, and the wailing, and the clinging, calmly reassure instead of yell. Give extra hugs and kisses. (Let him sleep with his bed lamp on and cuddle with all of the toys from the toy chest.) Know that this phase will end. Work with child care providers on best practices for dropping off a child with separation anxiety.
- Work together. Find ways to incorporate the child into things that you would normally do alone. My son uses the dust-buster while I vacuum, his craft table is in my office so he can “create” while I am writing or researching new books, and he has the all important job of turning the salad spinner before dinner
- Hang tough. Don’t let the crying and whining and other unpleasant behaviors be used to manipulate you. Separation anxiety isn’t an excuse for breaking a house rule. (I understand that you miss Daddy but it is never ok to hit your sister with a tinker toy.) So be clear to yourself and your child about what is acceptable and what isn’t.
- You don’t have to do this alone. This will end, but if you need some help coming up with a game plan on making it that far with everyone’s sanity and health intact, or this is going on beyond the scope of “the norm,” talk to your child’s doctor or other health care provider for additional insight.
Additional Helpful Resources:
Alia Reese is the spouse of a US Marine and mother of 2 young children. She holds a Master’s Degree in Psychology and used her experience raising children through her husband’s multiple combat deployments to create the award winning American Hero Books® series. For more information please visit www.heartstarpress.com or contact Alia at email@example.com.