Is your child afraid to be away from you, even when just going to bed? What’s the anxiety really about?
According to Dr. Becky, separation anxiety results from your child’s natural wiring. Children need to feel safe, and their sense of security comes largely from their parents’ presence. Dr. Becky shares several tools you can use to soothe separation anxiety, especially at bedtime.
Continue reading to discover how to put these strategies into practice in your family.
Dr. Becky on Separation Anxiety
Dr. Becky Kennedy explains that children are wired to attach to their parents because this ensures their survival. According to Dr. Becky, separation anxiety—which manifests as crying, tantrums, and other behaviors that happen when you say goodbye to your child—is a result of this wiring. Dr. Becky explains that, when you separate from her, she’ll need to retain the sense of safety that your presence gives her without having you with her. At bedtime, separation anxiety is compounded by the fact that your child needs to feel safe to fall asleep.
To deal with separation anxiety, Dr. Becky suggests using these three tools: 1) connection, 2) confidence-building, and 3) playfulness.
Progressively increase the distance that feels safe during bedtime. Start by sitting on your child’s bed, gently stroking her hair until she falls asleep. After a few days, move to the foot of the bed, and so on until you’ve gradually moved to the other side of her open door. Dr. Becky recommends that each time you’re going to move, you let her know about it that morning so she can mentally prepare.
(Shortform note: Dr. Becky’s bedtime strategy can help your child ease into that long stretch of separation, but you might also consider not separating from your infant or toddler at bedtime by co-sleeping instead. In many cultures, safe co-sleeping is the norm and parents believe that it helps their children feel the security they need in that vulnerable moment, which some parents argue will help children become independent and secure in the future.)
Build a routine. Dr. Becky explains that knowing what to expect during this time will make it easier for your child to cope, which can help her feel more confident about facing the time away from you. Talk to your child about what the separation will look like and what you’ll say and do. When it’s time to separate, model confidence. If you project nervousness, your child will pick up on it, confirming her suspicions that it’s not safe to be away from you. Dr. Becky argues that if you project confidence, she’ll still be upset—but she’ll see that you’re sure that it’s okay for her to be away from you, so it must be.
(Shortform note: To model confidence, you have to be confident. The authors of The Whole-Brain Child argue that children can sense their parents’ underlying emotions. So, this is not the time to fake it till you make it. Instead, educate yourself on how to support your child, choose strategies you feel comfortable with, and be confident that you can use them effectively.)
Dr. Becky suggests that before you separate, you hug your child tight and playfully “check” her to see if her tank’s topped up with enough parental love. Hug her several times until she’s all “topped up” and then give her an extra hug so she has “extra” parental love to tide her over until your next moment together. (Shortform note: Besides playfulness, Dr. Becky’s “top-up” game uses the power of touch. In No-Drama Discipline, the authors explain that positive touch releases stress-relieving hormones in the brain, which help children (and adults) calm down.)
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Here's what you'll find in our full Good Inside summary:
- A parenting manual to help you build a positive relationship with your child
- Why time-outs, rewards, and serious conversations don't "fix" kids
- Strategies to deal with ten common parenting challenges