How to not be anxious about separation anxiety

I’m writing this post as a note to self, to read as a reminder for the next foreseeable future! This is not a list of strategies to help your child; the Internet is already full of them. This is a guideline for mums like me to keep calm and carry on! 😬

Aanavi has reached the peak of her separation anxiety in all its manifestations. We’ve had three major changes in the last few months – a new home, starting school and me being back at work. Not to mention plenty of travel from her Dad and a rotating illness/injury chart in our home. It’s enough to throw even a well-balanced adult off.

Bedtime is becoming increasingly wearisome, at first it was funny and cute that she’d try to make excuses to keep us in the room. But now it’s just exhausting. One day this week, she stripped herself naked in a fit of tears. Another day it took an hour and a half to put her down, she was only asleep after 9pm. And every other day has had some battle and resistance that drags and sometimes is actually painful for both of us.

So here are my coping mechanisms:

1. Equip yourself with the understanding of what separation anxiety really is, but more importantly, know (and believe) that it is just a phase and this too shall pass.

2. With that in mind, you should already have a more calm approach to dealing with the difficult emotions your toddler presents. Step two is to acknowledge that it’s not about how you feel (exhausted and awful), but separation anxiety is about your toddler experiencing the heightened feelings of distress.
Don’t make it your problem otherwise it will be a fight. Validate their emotions and support them through it within boundaries that you feel comfortable setting. “I can see that you feel you don’t want to sleep right now…” Often just acknowledging how they feel, without telling them that they shouldn’t be feeling that way, or what they ought to be doing instead, is enough to calm them down.

3. Be firm but fair, and know that consistency doesn’t mean punishment; consistency doesn’t even have to mean discipline. You can be consistent in how you respond to your child without reward or punishment so that they know what to expect from you at bedtime. One night this week, Aanavi didn’t cry at all but actually requested me, in a mature way, to stay in the room because she still wanted to “talk to me”. And she really did need to get things off her chest. Had I been ‘consistent’ in reinforcing a strict bedtime routine, I wouldn’t have heard her out, answered her questions and calmed her mind. So though the schedule wasn’t consistent, the way I respond to her is (i.e. I consistently active listen and when she needs me to put boundaries in place, I do, but when she just needs comfort, she gets it…without me stressing about how this may ‘spoil her’ or create a bad habit)! Comforting your child during an emotional outburst is not rewarding her, it’s simply giving your child the space they need to express themselves in the only way that they know how.

4. Catch up with sleep when you can. It can be emotionally and physically draining to deal with the demands of your child’s anxiety and if they have frequent night wakings it can be even worse. I’ve never been one to take naps but the last few days have seen me disappear in the afternoons. 💤

5. Give them choices they can manage, and that you would both be comfortable with. So it’s not, “Stop crying or I will leave the room!” That’s not a choice, it’s a threat.
Try, “Do you want me to sing you a song or read you a story?” Tell them how many you will allow before bedtime to avoid the trap of “one more!”
E.g. “Okay, I will sing one song.”
Give your toddler some control over the situation and discipline through distraction.

6. Know that you will not do this right every time so, when all else fails, let Daddy do bedtime and pour yourself a cup of tea (or glass of wine)! 😉

Note to self.

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