6 Ways Working Moms Can Help Ease Separation Anxiety

Be prepared for the tears with these techniques

Child Separation Anxiety
Child Separation Anxiety. Photo by Katherine Lewis

Separation anxiety can hit at any stage of child development. Maybe your 9-month old baby suddenly wails when you leave for work, or your 2-year old child sobs during daycare drop off. Even older children may balk at being left with a babysitter on Saturday night. One thing’s for sure -- separation anxiety is emotionally draining for working moms and their children.

By developing comforting rituals and behaving confidently, you can ease the pain and guilt of separation anxiety.

Here are six ways to combat separation anxiety and start the day right.

1. Use Rituals to Ease Separation Anxiety

Children feel more secure when they know what to expect. Establishing a morning ritual helps them through the transition from home to child care. Leave time for every step, so your child doesn’t feel rushed and stressed. Here’s ours: cuddle in bed together, dress, brush teeth, eat breakfast, drive to school, put backpack in cubby, say goodbye to Mommy and Daddy.

Our daycare center has a wonderful tradition of a “bye-bye window.” The top half of the classroom door opens separately, so the parent can lean in and give a kiss goodbye. Older children start the day outdoors, so part of the playground equipment is dubbed the “bye-bye tower.” Kids climb up and wave over the fence as the parents drive away.

When a child is having trouble separating, a teacher or parent will say, “Do you want to go to the bye-bye window?” It’s amazing, but the reminder of the ritual often stops the tears.

If your child care provider doesn’t have any goodbye rituals, suggest one! Or, create a ritual or special goodbye words just for you and your child. Of course, it takes a while to establish the ritual, but after a few weeks your child will know what to expect.

2. Set a Positive Tone for Separating

It’s remarkable how sensitive children are to our moods.

Even a small infant can tell when Mama is upset, and often will start to fuss or get anxious. Bigger children may act out or become clingy if their parents seem unhappy or angry.

So the tone you set for saying goodbye will influence whether your child clutches and wails, or runs off happily to play. Smile and speak with a positive inflection, no matter how sad you may feel inside. .

When you let your own anxiety or unhappiness show through your facial expression or manner, the message your child will hear is: “Mommy thinks something’s wrong with leaving me in child care.” Is it any wonder that he will conclude that he’s not going to be safe and loved without you there?

3. Make a Clean Break

Similarly, it’s important not to linger when your child is having a hard time separating. If you prolong the goodbye based on how much she screams and cries, you can guarantee that tomorrow she’ll sob harder and longer.

Sure, give an extra big hug and kiss when your kid’s upset, but then detach yourself and give a smiling goodbye. It’s okay to dawdle in the hallway until you hear her cries subside. I always do that, and it’s usually less than a minute of tears.

Make sure you stay out of sight, though.

When my youngest was going through a particularly rough patch, I handed her over to her favorite teacher and left. Sure enough, she stopped crying quickly and I happily headed to the door. As I passed her classroom I couldn’t resist peeking in -- only to make eye contact with my daughter. Predictably, she burst into another round of wails.

Make sure you don’t forget something that will force you to go into the same room as your child after you’ve already separated. I’ve asked other parents to deliver a sippy cup when I discovered it in my car, or to grab my keys when I left them in the classroom.

4. Distract Your Child

At the moment of separation, you may be able to distract an infant from being upset. Point to a favorite toy, or ask the teacher to carry her to a window to see birds or trees.

Then say goodbye and leave.

With an older child, ask a question about the day’s activities. Remind her of a story she wanted to tell her teacher or one of her friends. Point out that her favorite tricycle is free. Sometimes you can forestall a crying fit by a well-timed distraction.

5. Decide Whether to Sneak Out

One decision you’ll have to make is whether to sneak away when your child isn’t paying attention. This is a subject of controversy in my own family. My husband sees no problem with it, while I want my girls to know that I’ll always say goodbye. I don’t want them to worry that I’ll suddenly disappear when they aren’t looking

Certainly, I see the benefit of leaving while your child is sleeping or playing with a toy -- it lessens the opportunity for a crying fit. But I could never bring myself to do it. I always wanted to be there to know if they were upset, even if I was just eavesdropping outside the door.

6. Use an Engaging Object or Special Treat

Objects carry power. Plan ahead by asking your child if he wants to bring in a special rock or picture to show his teacher. That can be your distraction ploy at the moment of goodbye.

You may also want to give your kid something from home to carry through the school day. Some ideas: a favorite teddy, a family photo, or a piece of your jewelry. I’m convinced that’s why schools have show and tell (or show and share) -- to give children something to clutch instead of Mommy’s hand.

If your child is going through a particularly rough time, think about planning an after-school outing. Whether it’s pizza night or an after-dinner walk to see the fire station, it gives her something to look forward to and talk about during the drop off at child care.

Edited by Elizabeth McGrory

Identify and Avoid Anxiety Triggers

Pay attention to the days when your child has trouble separating. See if there is a common thread that is triggering tears. Make sure you’re not pressured and rushing through the steps of the morning ritual.

Our middle daughter is always clingier when she arrives at daycare before her two closest friends. If I help her identify a child looking for a playmate, she’ll scurry off happily.

Or, I just give an extra long hug and tell her the fun things we’ll do that evening.

Mondays are hard for many households. You may want to give some extra time and affection on the first day of child care after a weekend or vacation.

I’ve also noticed that my girls hit an emotional wall after 8 hours in child care. If I can pick them up at 5:15 pm instead of 5:45 pm, it makes a world of difference. When I tell my 4-year old that I’ll pick her up early -- even by just a half hour -- she finds it much easier to say goodbye.

Enlist Your Child’s Caregiver

The transition to child care is like a football pass. You can set everything up perfectly only to have your child’s caregiver fumble the reception. Make sure the two of you are working together.

If your child is struggling with separation anxiety, ask her caregiver what might help. A plan the two of you agree on will be much easier to implement than something you dream up on your own.

If you have success taming separation anxiety, please share your techniques in the working moms forum.