Raising children is probably the most difficult responsibility that adults hold, and in this age of social media and easy access to information about anything and everything, parents are easily overwhelmed with feelings of guilt, inadequacy and self-doubt. As a sleep consultant, I see this all the time from parents whose babies aren’t sleeping well.
One of the other major contributors to the, “I’m doing something wrong,” sensation is separation anxiety; that oh-so-challenging part of a child’s life when they start to completely flip their lids whenever Mom’s not around.
To the Moms who are experiencing the tantrums and behaviors that their child exhibits, it can appear that their child views the experience as:
- Mommy’s not in the room.
- Therefore, Mommy is somewhere else.
- I would prefer to be there with her.
- Let me make that happen using the fastest method I know- I shall raise the most unimaginable of ruckuses.
And those ruckuses leave us, as parents, to wonder, “Am I doing something wrong?”
After all, a well-adjusted child should probably feel reasonably safe when they’re separated from their parents for a little while, shouldn’t they? I mean, Vicky from the office says her baby is perfectly content being left with her sitter, even overnight. And that one mom in your Facebook group said that her baby will happily play by herself for hours at a time, and actually takes her toys to her room occasionally in order to get a little ‘me’ time.
Two things to keep in mind.
First, never compare yourself, or your child, to the mothers and babies described in the parenting groups on social media. Much like everything else on Facebook and Instagram, these experiences are almost always conveyed through the rosiest of lenses.
And second, separation anxiety is completely normal, expected, and a sign of a healthy attachment between parent and child.
So what is it, exactly?
Separation anxiety typically starts to occur around 6-8 months of age, when your little one starts to realize that things continue to exist, even when they’re not in sight. It’s a cognitive milestone known as “object permanence” which is defined as, “the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed.”
In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind.
You will notice that they have begun to understand this concept when your little one starts to cry if you take away their favorite toy and hide it behind your back. Before understanding this concept, baby would just look away and play with a different toy since their toy disappeared, but once object permanence is established, he/she will cry because baby knows that just because the toy cannot be seen, it doesn’t mean that the toy is no longer there.
So as your baby begins to grasp this concept, they realize that if you, their favorite person in the whole world, are not there, you’re elsewhere. And, hey, wait a minute. If that’s the case, then you might not be coming back.
It’s kind of fascinating when you think about it, but it’s also a little heartbreaking. This realization, for a baby, is obviously cause for full-blown panic. The thought of a parent leaving and not returning causes anxiety in most grown-ups I know, so you can hardly expect an infant to take it with great modesty.
In short, that’s what happens in your little one’s brain when they suddenly start having a fit every time you leave the room. It’s normal, it’s natural, and it’s a sign that your little one is learning, and that they have a secure attachment to their parent. Awesome.
But, as many of us know, it also means that leaving them with a sitter or dropping them off at day care can be an absolute horror show.
We really want to know, or at least what I really wanted to know when it happened with my children, isn’t “What’s causing this?” What I wanted to know was, “How do I prevent it?” Well, the truth is, you probably wouldn’t want to if you could. I mean, really, wouldn’t you be just a little devastated if you left your child with a stranger and they were just completely OK with it? “Bye Mom! See you at dinner! Don’t worry about me. You guys have fun!” Even worse- no reaction at all?
I’m guessing that would actually be significantly more troubling than some tears and howling. Still, we obviously want to keep things at a happy medium, and if you’re struggling with a child who’s pitching an absolute fit every time you try to run an errand or head out for date night, I’ve got some suggestions to take the edge off until this phase runs its course.