“I’ll be back” – a very simple absence cue for short-term separation

During my time as an Early Years Educator I’d see many parents attempt the ‘sneak away when they’re not looking’ approach. I can see how this might seem like the better of two evils but I have got to be honest, it only works to exacerbate the separation anxiety. The scenario would usually play out something like this: whilst the child was happily exploring a new toy or busying themselves with part of the daily routine the parent would sneak out. It would usually only take a few moments for the child to turn around to check in with their secure base and realise that their carer wasn’t there anymore. And then they would get extremely distressed, usually more so than if their parents had said goodbye. The next day things would be worse, they would be ‘clingier’ than ever and I’d find myself prising a child from their parents, which, lets face it, is just heartbreaking for all involved.

Children need to have trust in you and feel a sense of predictability about how things will unfold. So my advice to parents/carers was to always say goodbye in a confident and consistent way. During settling in sessions when we encouraged the parents to leave the room for a short time and then return, we would ask them to tell their child that they will be back.

From around 6 months Althea developed what I can only describe as exhausting separation anxiety. I imagine it was exhausting for her as well. Leaving the room was near impossible, leaving her with someone else was out of the question. I spent a lot of time reassuring myself that it is in fact a normal stage of development. But looking back I wonder if there was something more I could have done to ease her anxiety and it occurred to me that maybe I hadn’t been following my own advice. Did I tell her I was leaving the room every time? No, definitely not.

As parents we are often moving from room to room to complete chores or fetch things. WE know that we will be back in a few moments but our infant or toddler doesn’t know that. Once they have noticed that you have disappeared from their sight they don’t know where you have gone or when you will be back. You can see how this would be distressing and how it would likely lead to them demanding that they come along with you. It can also leave them feeling tense the rest of the time and unable to fully relax into play. Your child climbing you like a tree and demanding that they remain in constant contact with you whilst they play might be somewhat familiar to you.

Now at 18 months Althea is more often than not fine with me moving around the house, she will usually continue playing, unless I am heading upstairs in which case she will want to join me. However, if we have friends over she will prefer that I stay in her line of sight (which for the record is completely normal). On friday our new babysitter started, so far Althea hasn’t been left with anyone other than our parents when they have come to visit for blocks of time, so this is a pretty big deal. We are lucky that I can be around and we can take a gentle and gradual approach. At the moment we’re at the stage of me leaving the room for short periods of time.

Sheyne Rowley, author of Sleep Dream Baby Guide recommends that you use

short term absence cues each time you leave your child’s line of sight, such as, “I’ll be back”. And every time you return, always say “I’m Back”. The first time you use the cue, make your absence short. Each time after that gradually leave for longer and longer periods of time.

The key is consistency. Always saying you will be back BEFORE you leave the room (don’t shout it from another room) and then announcing your return. If your baby cries try not to rush back in and rescue her, although you want to reassure her you are still nearby and that all is ok, in actual fact you’re telling her that she isn’t ok and that she does need you. Being calm, confident and consistent and following through means that she will eventually find your actions predictable and this is a lot more reassuring to her.

It is important to note that this isn’t going to fix separation anxiety but it is one way of supporting your child through this completely normal developmental stage and will work to alleviate some of the anxiety.

I’d love to hear any of your tips for dealing with separation anxiety in the comments or over on the facebook page

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