Every parent has experienced the phenomenon of separation anxiety in children. It is a normal behaviour that is part of child’s development seen mostly in babies and toddlers. It can most often be seen in babies from 8 months to about 2 years old. It is often triggered with a new childcare situation, a new sibling or moving to a new place.
For children it would be normal to feel this way, to cry and be distressed to the new changes as they are separated from who they trust. A child may even feel anxiety next door from the parents’ bedroom while tucked in the bed.
For a child who is younger than 8 months it is easier to adapt to new caregivers. It is about 8 months to 1 year that a child is more aware of the surroundings, recognises faces and exhibits stranger anxiety. It is also about 8 months that a child only begins to understand the concept of object permanence. This is when babies are not able to see an object in front of them that they think it has disappeared or is completely gone and could not just be somewhere else. It is therefore important to allow the child to understand this concept and to feel secure about not being let alone. At this stage children also begin to understand the input and control they have in their environment.
In the Montessori classrooms, activities such as drop boxes with drawers in which a child may drop a ball and observe as it disappears from sight and can be found once more hidden in a drawer, allow this concept to be understood. While this is a normal phenomenon, it is a concern since it can also be unsettling for parents by triggering feelings of guilt and confusion. As the child takes on this new role of awareness and impact to the surroundings, he slowly begins to experiment with the adult and daily routine of the adults.
The child attempts to avoid separation by becoming teary eyed as the parent attempts to leave the child with the carer, testing the boundaries that are set. As with everything, the parents need to be firm with the boundaries that they set with their children. A child understands that crying affects the adults when they leave and will use this strategy to avoid separation.
What can parents do to help a child to feel secure about being left alone? Strategies include minimising the separation as much as possible, taking the baby along if possible and waiting for the child to outgrow this phase of development. If a child has to be left without parents, leave him with a relative or someone familiar. This can allow for separation to be easier. Yet if a child is to be left in childcare and the carers are strangers, try to let the child become familiar with the carers gradually in preparation for the new situation. Allow for and give time to the child to become comfortable. This can be done by letting the child become accustomed to the new surroundings and carers.
The parent may drop off a child earlier in the centre or allow a babysitter to come in earlier to allow the child to interact with the carer before the parent has to leave. Let the child be fearful but show him that it is okay. Also always say goodbye to your child, and give a cuddle or a kiss and tell him you will be back. The goodbyes though should not be prolonged and should be light. The baby is also aware of your feelings of difficulty of letting go. Try not to let the child see you cry (if you do so) and most often the child will stop crying as soon as you are a few steps out of the doorway. Once you have left do not come back and forth as it will reinforce using crying as a strategy to keep you there. Repeated trips will make it harder for both of you and the carer.
If difficulty is still observed re-evaluate the goodbye pattern. If the parent makes a big deal of the separation the child senses it and also becomes distressed. A quick goodbye may make the child feel confident that you will be back. A parent’s body language may also send a message to the child that he can always come back and therefore hinder exploring the environment and getting comfortable with the surrounding and the carer. A child may start exploring his surroundings but the parent sends a message to come back to him/her and the child may do just exactly that. It also requires awareness from the parents.
Another form of separation anxiety is night time separation anxiety. This can be dealt with by spending some extra time reading a bed time story or a cuddle time with the child. If the child cries in his sleep, do comfort him but do not stay until he falls asleep. It will be hard initially, but your child will be more likely to be able to fall asleep on his own.
As Montessori believed “Some children are of such retiring nature that their psychic energies are too weak to resist the influence of the adult. Instead they attach themselves to an older person who tends to substitute his own activity for theirs and they thus become extremely dependent upon him. Their lack of vital energy, although they are not aware of it themselves make them prone to tears. They complain about everything; and since they have the air of one who is suffering, they are thought to be sensitive and affectionate.
They are always bored, though they do not realise it, and they have recourse to others, that is, to adults, because they cannot themselves escape the boredom that oppresses them. They cling to another as if their very life depended upon it. They ask adult for help. They want him to play with them, to tell them stories, to sing to them and never leave them. An adult becomes a slave to such children. Even though child and adult have a deep understanding and affection for one another, they are ensnared in the same net.”
It is quite common, though hard to admit, that it is harder for the adult to separate from the child than for the child to separate from the adult. (Lillard) This also has to be realised so as to know how the separation can be dealt with. It is hard for a parent to let go of a child who is slowly gaining independence while until recently was very dependent on the parent. It is important to allow the child to realise these feelings of separation and overcome them. A parent may be able to do a lot to help the child by making him feel comfortable, familiar with the carer. A child needs to learn the concept that physical presence is not the only way to feel trust and feeling of oneness with the loved one. This is a concept that is important for both, parent and child to grasp.
If separation anxiety is properly dealt with, it helps pave the way for the acceptance attachments and separations as a natural process. It is a process that enhances security in life. Based on attachment theory by John Bowlby, attachment is the sense of being loved and being part of the world. When a child feels secure he is then not focused on his internal emotional needs and turns the attention to the external world and allows exploration and work. It is then through this work and exploration that a child learns and creates himself.
To be able to deal with separation anxiety it may be difficult for the child, parent and carers but it must be dealt with and the suggested strategies may be used to ultimately help the behavioural development of the child.
References: Lillard, P.P and Jessen, L.L. Montessori from the Start Schocken Books, New York. 2003.
- The Montessori materials presented are those that can be found on the communication board.
- Fine motor skills to watch out for are: reflexive grasp, sweeping arm movements, wrist movement, primitive pincer, palmar grasp, true pincer, how many finger grasps, intentional release, thumb and index opposition, small pincer grasps, pointing, etc.
- Gross motor skills to watch out for are: turning, sitting up, pulling up, scooting, crawling, standing and walking (on wide base or stable)