Every day at day care centers and preschools around the world, parents drop off young children who cling tightly to their legs, reluctantly letting go of their parents. On average, when a toddler is between 12-18 months, he will experience a bit of separation anxiety. This is considered developmentally normal.
How the adults in his world react can make a great deal of difference in how the child responds. There are many out there who will make the crucial mistakes of not giving a child time to adjust to new caregivers (in other words, just place the child in the hands of strangers) or will leave without saying goodbye.
For children who are being raised by their biological parents, separation anxiety can be a time of great concern. For adoptive and foster children, this separation can tap into their past trauma. After all, many of our children were abandoned or removed from their first homes, never to see their first caregivers again. Some have been shuffled from foster home to foster home.
Countless adopted and foster children have sleep issues. For some this is because abuse occurred at night, or they witnessed violence in the nighttime hours. For others, it could be that this was the time they were abandoned, awakening to find themselves in a totally different place or without a beloved caretakers.
And then there’s the ultimate in separation that occurs in most international adoptions, and that’s when the baby is handed over to you, the new loving adoptive parents. While some agencies and countries do a slightly better job of these transitions, the majority of them are still overwhelmingly anxiety producing for the children. Think about it…you don’t look, sound or smell like anyone they’ve ever seen before. How terrifying is that!
Yet, despite realizing that our children have been through separations of great magnitude, we often seem surprised at their level of separation anxiety when we drop them off at the sitter’s or leave them with grandma. And, if we aren’t aware of the importance, we can follow some very bad advice.
Some will sneak out the back door, not saying goodbye (perhaps just like the child’s original abandonment). Or we will leave them at daycare centers the first time we walk in there, without any transitional moves of allowing the child to adjust to the new adults and get to know the people there.
Often, these types of separations are done for the parent’s benefit. It’s hard to leave your little one, and many parents feel guilty. So, rather than face the “scene” your child will make, slipping away unnoticed is just easier. It’s easier on you, but not on your child.
Some parents will err to the other extreme, though, making the separation such a long, drawn-out, tearful event that the child’s anxiety levels increase. Separating from your child should be a deliberate event, after you’ve given the child a chance to get comfortable with their new surroundings and the caregivers.
As parents of children who have been abandoned, shuffled around and separated from those they love, we need to be cognizant of how our children are adjusting to separating from us. Day care providers and school personnel will often minimize separation anxiety issues, even if our children’s anxiety continues to increase. Watch for signs of whether your child is adjusting or not. And don’t be timid to ask for modifications to routines or procedures if the way your child is required to separate from you is adding to their anxiety. Some centers or schools require that a child be dropped off at the door, which is sometimes not right for an anxious kid.
In many adoptive and foster children, separation anxiety doesn’t show up for many months or years after they’ve come into our homes. It often takes adoptive parents by surprise, because the child can be much older than the typical toddler stage. And, why not? Our children have to build that attachment to us first, so we’re no longer just one more of a string of temporary adults in their lives. After that, they can experience the emotional developmental stage of separation anxiety. So, much to our confusion and embarrassment, this stage can show up in elementary-aged children, causing problems at their schools. Don’t let the adults in the situation dictate what must be done because of your child’s chronological age. Teachers may emphatically tell you that this step is abnormal and needs to be dealt with “firmly”. Child psychologists will advise otherwise. Often, giving the child a transitional object or reminder from home to carry with him or keep in his desk is helpful, such as a picture of you.
You know what your child needs. You also know his history and the potential trauma triggers. Don’t minimize your child’s feelings. Watch his reactions and find a place and a way to separate that works for him.