Communication between a parent or caregiver and an infant is fundamental for a child’s development. Even though it is the adult using words, the child is also participating in the conversation in different ways such as moving their eyes, using facial expressions and even crying. Maintaining and fostering a trusting bond of communication is an essential way to help a child through separation anxiety.
After about 6 to 8 months, children begin to develop a sense of object permanence and start to express some separation anxiety. This is completely normal and expected. Though there may not have been substantial changes in the routines of the caregiver, the child will begin to express discomfort at times of separation, often crying loudly and inconsolably. This can occur at bedtime, when a child is passed into someone else’s arms, or simply when the primary caregiver leaves the room for a moment. There are many ways a caregiver can help themselves and the child through this stage of development. Caregivers who are able to build a foundation of trust through honest, respectful and consistent communication will have invaluable tools for helping children overcome separation anxiety.
A caregiver can foster trust through communication by consistently informing a child as to what is affecting them in a simple, clear and appropriate way. A popular example is telling a child, “I am going to pick you up now” before doing so. Similarly, a child might arch their torso in anticipation, or in the hopes, of being lifted out of bed. This kind of communication helps assure the child that they have a caregiver they can rely on to provide a safe, stable routine free of constantly unexpected situations. The child will not be left with the responsibility of constantly wondering what is going to happen next. Throughout time, a foundation of trust is built on this verbal and nonverbal dialogue between the child and caregiver.
During times of separation, a trusting bond of communication between a caregiver and child will gradually alleviate the anxiety the child may feel. When a child is going through stages of separation anxiety saying goodbye, even for a quick errand, can be a real challenge for parents. To avoid these challenges some parents may resort to long drawn-out goodbyes, distractions, promises or elaborate stealthy escapes. Instead, it is important to try to anticipate how goodbyes can be particularly sensitive for a child. Keeping this in mind, parents can inform the child beforehand when they will be leaving and returning. Then, when the moment comes, parents can use brief words accompanied by reassuring body language to say goodbye.
Establishing a trusting bond of communication with a child from day one will enable parents and caregivers to be more supportive to a child experiencing any kind of anxiety. Beyond separation anxiety, parents can use this approach to let a child know, in a clear honest and appropriate way, what to expect at a doctors office, or prepare them for new a different things they may encounter on a vacation. When a child is allowed to grow up in an environment where they are treated with respect, honesty, stability and consistency, they will have a strong foundation to help them overcome separation as well as the many other challenges they will experience growing up.
By Magdalena S. Palencia