As it becomes more culturally normal for children to spend more hours away from their parents at a younger age there grows a larger need to support these children through the fear of separation. How do we nurture our attachment while also meeting the sometimes essential need to separate?
And how do we support children in working through their fears, especially within the context of a nursery or school setting where there may be conflicts of agreement over how best to support each unique individual?
“Children do not see what alarms them because the true root of alarm is the fear of separation from the people and things to which they are attached. This vulnerability is too much to bear. It is less vulnerable to fear darkness, ants, noises, shadows or monsters under the bed.”
Separations are inevitable and at a young age might look as seemingly innocuous as the parent going to the bathroom and turning around to clear away toys. The child may perceive this as an interruption to their connection and attachment to their parent or carer which they instinctively know to be critical to their security.
So-called negative behaviour is often really an expression of stored-up fear, of the alarm system going on and an incomplete recovery to knowing safety as something which can be trusted. At the heart of it, children can feel such extreme vulnerability they will often do anything to distract or avoid the feeling – compulsive attachment to a blankie, the refusal to take socks off, whining – these are all strategies to manage vulnerability.
How to separate without causing more tension about separation:
Nourish the attachment relationship prior to separation – it might sound counter-intuitive but if the child feels good about life, feels your warm loving attention, feels safe and secure they are more likely to express their feelings openly.
Validate the feelings – when deep feelings come up as tears or whining or cries it is a strong invitation for us to stay calm and loving. Remember the healing power of what your child instinctively knows how to do and, if you can, feel free to marvel at it!
Say goodbye – it’s easy to want to avoid saying ‘goodbye’ when we anticipate the consequence. Be clear and speak with warmth that you are saying ‘goodbye’. Make the effort to maintain connection with eye-contact even if your child cries, clings, hides their face, whimpers, sobs etc and show empathy and kindness.
Keep listening – stay present, listen, listen some more, be close – this is precious healing at work and well worth the time even if it might feel frustrating or stressful for you. Be sure to step into a ‘goodbye’ when you feel spacious enough to accommodate the intensity which your child might be feeling (which might be up to an hour of crying). Try not to feel anxious yourself but be conscious about your commitment to supporting your child in that moment in a warm and compassionate way.
Don’t rationalise – it can be tempting to try to ‘explain’ your needs, the teachers needs, the other children’s needs, all as a way of alleviating the tension of the goodbye. Talking pulls the child away from being able to simply feel the feelings and also undermines the child’s trust that you know how to care for them in this situation – this can often make their alarm ring more loudly.
If it’s not practical to stay at the nursery or school supporting your upset child, you could start the goodbye at home. Explain to your child’s careers or teachers what you are trying to work through (a healing process which may only take a week or a few days when expressed fully). Ask if someone can be available for your child at goodbye time to listen and comfort if you have to leave.
Reassure them about the other adult – explain to your child that you are happy for the other adult to take care of them. That you know they will do things they enjoy when you have finished saying goodbye. Reassure the child that you will return for them and that you always will. If the other childcarer is present to listen and validate this will do wonders for their relationship with the child even if in the heat of the moment it looks like the child is rejecting the other adult (emotionally or physically).
Collecting your child – when we are reunited our children often indicate how they have experienced the separation and their attachment relationship by how willing they are to re-attach. A securely-attached child will greet positively whereas an avoidant or resistant child who doesn’t feel entirely secure will find it harder to offer eye-contact or hug. It may feel hugely rejecting – be patient, be consistent, stay close – keep offering your own warmth and affection until they are ready to receive it and resist the urge to inappropriately download your own hurt or disappointment onto the child.
And finally, make sure you have another loving adult to listen to you – that might mean listening to your tears too. Separation can feel painful, children are not alone in hearing the internal alarm system go off but it may help to remember that attachment has been defined as a “deep and enduring emotional bond that connects one person to another across time and space”2 and that opportunities to connect and heal are bountiful.
1 The Neufeld Institute, 2011
2 Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969