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Question of the week: How do I help a young child with separation anxiety due to the parents’ divorce?

 
 

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We have a young mom whose husband left a few weeks ago. This family has attended our church since before the child was born. He is now 2 years old. Since the dad left, this toddler screams and holds on to his mom’s neck when she tries to bring him into the nursery. We usually end up asking the mom to leave her class and come sit in the nursery with her toddler. The child is fine as long as mom sits in the room with him. I’m thinking this has made things worse because he screams now until we call her.

We realize that separation anxiety is normal for this age child. However, this seems to go way beyond normal separation anxiety, and it didn’t start until the dad left.

What the child is experiencing may not seem like normal separation anxiety, but for the child whose parents have just separated, it is not unusual. Many children, even older children, will experience a lot of anxiety after a parent has moved out of the family home.

Children wonder, “If one parent left me, when will the other parent leave?” Because young children are egocentric, they assume the parent left them. The question isn’t “Will the other parent leave me?” but “When will that parent leave me?”

While infants or toddlers won’t have those kinds of thoughts, they do pick up on the anxiety of those around them. They miss the other parent but do not have any understanding of where the parent is.

  • Encourage the parent to walk the child into the room. This way, the child can see the other children.
  • If the child walks into the room, have the parent physically hand the child to the teacher/nursery worker. The parent can do this by taking the child’s hand she is holding and putting it in the teacher’s hand. As the mom hands the child over, she needs to say good-bye and then turn and walk out the door immediately. Never allow the mom to sneak away. This will only serve to cause the child more anxiety.
  • If the parent carries the child in, encourage him to have the child’s back to himself.
  • When the child is facing the parent and hugging the parent’s neck, it becomes a tug of war to separate the child from the parent.
  • If the child’s back is facing the parent, it is easier for the parent to physically turn the child over to someone else. The parent can gently push the child away from himself and toward the other person.

The parent may have a lot of anxiety, and some moms in the throes of grief or stressed over a separation may tend to lean on their child more than is good for the child or the parent.

If you feel you must call the parent back into the nursery or class, the parent should take the child and leave. I would not encourage the parent to stay and sit in the room.

A reassuring voice and calming words need to come from the teacher.

  • “We are going to have such a good time today” needs to be said with a smile.
  • “I know you miss your daddy. It’s hard when daddies aren’t around” should be said with love and empathy.
  • “You are safe with me” allows the child and the teacher to feel a deeper bond with each other.
  • “Shhhh, shhh don’t cry. You are going to be fine. Look at your friends; they aren’t crying. Shh, shh!” should not be said at all. While it’s tempting to say things like this, they are not comforting to the child.

My friend Cristi Roberts says, “Every Sunday, when that mother hands me her crying baby, I take him in my arms, take a deep calming breath, and then one long, calming ‘Shhhhhhhhhh’ as I exhale. Then I tell him the truth, ‘It’s so hard when Mommy leaves. She’ll be back. You’re safe; keep breathing. You can handle this.’”

Singing the child’s favorite song will also help. Find out from the mom what songs she sings and then replicate those songs.

For some children, having a scarf or a piece of clothing that smells like the mom will help. Have the mom spray a little of her perfume on the item, and allow the child to keep it with him.

Some toddlers may like carrying around pictures of their parents.

It’s okay to get creative and experiment with what works for a toddler whose parents are divorcing or have recently separated.

What have you found that works with stressed infants and toddlers when their parents divorce?

 

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on August 11, 2014.

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