Working mum's guide to separation anxiety

Psychologist (and working mum) Bibi Shah offers her advice

Bumps and Babies
Bumps and Babies

Working mums know the feeling all too well: leaving for work in the morning with a heaped portion of guilt for breakfast, mostly brought on by our little ones’ separation anxiety. Whether you’ve got a nine-month old who cries when you leave, or a toddler who bawls at the nursery drop-off, separation anxiety can hit at any age. It typically begins around nine months, when an infant is first able to better understand the difference between mum and a stranger. Most mums will agree that it’s emotionally draining and can affect your mood for the rest of your day.

By developing predictable routines and comforting rituals, you can ease the pain and guilt of separation anxiety. Here are some ways to combat separation anxiety and have a tear-free (we hope) goodbye.

Set a Positive Emotional Climate
This is very important, not just for easing separation anxiety, but also for any other difficult situations, such as a trip to the doctor or dentist.

Even very young children can remarkably pick up on our moods. Infants can sense when mum is sad or upset, and will often start to fuss or cry. Older children may act out or become clingy if their parents seem unhappy or angry. When our anxiety is displayed through our body language or tone, the message our children hear is ‘Mummy’s not happy with leaving me here so there must be something wrong’.

Set a positive tone by smiling and speaking as you normally would. Focus on positive things such as all the fun and exciting things your child will do during the day.

Set predictable routines
Predictable routines and rituals help children feel more secure because they know what to expect. Such routines also help aid in the transition from home to child-care or to your departure. Establish a morning ritual that leaves time for each step so there’s no rushing. Here’s ours: cuddle in bed together, brush teeth, dress, eat breakfast, gather backpack, drive to school, say goodbye to mummy. Some daycare or nurseries have ‘bye-bye’ rituals or traditions like waving goodbye, giving a kiss or hug or singing a song. If your nursery doesn’t have one, suggest one! You can also create one just for you and your child, which can involve special goodbye words. Remember that it takes a while to establish routines, but after a few weeks your child will know what to expect.

Distract Your Child
Sometimes all you need is a well-timed distraction. For infants or younger children, you may be able to distract then by showing them a favourite toy or by asking the teacher to carry them to a window to see birds or trees. With an older child, ask them about what activities they look forward to that day. Remind them a story they wanted to share with the teacher or one of their friends.

To Sneak Out or Not?
Some mums may or may not feel comfortable sneaking out when their child is distracted. This is a subject of controversy in my own family. My husband sees no problem with it, while I want my daughter 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. I do however, see the benefit of leaving while your child is sleeping or playing with a toy – it lessens any separation anxiety.

The Security Blanket
Many children have an object they use to ease anxiety such as a security blanket or toy. Such objects can help with the transition between leaving mum and entering nursery or school. Many children will clutch these while mummy is away – at least for sometime. For older children, other toys or favourite objects (such a favourite pencil) can replace a blanket or a cuddle toy.

Know the Triggers
Sometimes there are triggers that may fuel separation anxiety that are not always obvious. Pay attention to the days when your child has trouble separating. See if there is a common thread. Maybe you’ve rushed through the morning rituals? Maybe you’re anxious about a deadline or meeting that they may have picked up on? Or it may be a trigger at the nursery or school.

The first day of the week is hard for many children. You may want to give the some extra time and affection that morning or spend extra time with them later in the day.

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 them something to look forward to and talk about during the drop off at childcare.

Tips to Ease Guilt

Addressing and lowering your own guilt as a mother will in turn lead to a more positive bond between you and your child. Guilt can, at times, serve the function of telling you that you’re not happy about something. Think about what that may be. Is it your child’s nursery or school? Is it work-related? Moms work for different reasons. Write down the reasons why you work. This will help you revaluate and most times, reaffirm your decision to work. Many mums try to counteract guilt by overindulging their children to make up for the time spent apart. Try to focus on bonding activities rather than ones that involve indulgences, such as reading a favourite book, going for a walk or cooking together.

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