By Lysa Parker, MS, CFLE and Barbara Nicholson, MEd
Oh, the anguish of someone you love leaving you behind! Animals feel it, adults feel it, and of course children feel it too. A lot of assumptions have been made about what is called “separation anxiety” but not many people seem to really understand it. It’s a well recognized behavior in dogs (scratching, tearing up the house, whining, depression) yet easily subdued with an antidepressant. But when it comes to human children, separation anxiety is looked upon as abnormal behavior, especially if it continues past the ages of one to two years old.
The roots of this misunderstanding can be traced to our fierce belief in teaching independence without the knowledge or understanding of the child’s unique temperament or what is developmentally appropriate. In our culture, we tend to raise children with a “one size fits all” philosophy. In order to truly understand separation anxiety we really need to look at the big picture – the whole child within the framework of the parent-child attachment relationship. Until an infant is anywhere between seven to nine months old the child doesn’t seem to have a preference for one person over another but then the baby goes through a developmental leap and suddenly the only person the child wants is mummy (or the primary caregiver.) So much so that to be separated feels akin to torture or a profound loss, so there can be a lot of crying and resistance. Child developmentalists find that when a child’s hardwired need for the presence of the mother (or other) is respected and fulfilled, that in time the child will feel secure enough to separate from one or both parents. When that happens really depends on the child. Some children may take longer – as long as Kindergarten. That is not uncommon nor is it uncommon for a six- or seven- year-old child to resist spending the night at a friend’s house.
Children will readily separate when they have the emotional “readiness” to do so. Just like learning to use the potty or tie shoes, once the child is ready he is more than eager to do it himself! There are emotional milestones just as there are cognitive milestones. If there isn’t a compelling reason to force the child to separate then wait a couple of months and try again. A young child’s emotional and brain development changes rapidly and often; along with that so does their readiness and willingness to separate. If children grow up in a large household or with the familiarity of extended family members, it makes it much easier to separate and leave them with someone they know and love.