My preschooler has always been very attached to me, but over the past few months his separation anxiety has increased. I believe it has a direct correlation to the loss of both his great grandparents.
Using every ounce of my child life skills, my husband and I tried to gently explain to our kids what had happened to their beloved great grandparents. We knew this conversation was a pivotal moment in their lives and they would probably always remember it. So we were open, honest and gave them time to process and ask questions for clarity.
We then took an unplanned trip to California for the funeral services and the kids saw the family come together during such a tragic time. They also witnessed many family members (especially me) mourning over the loss and crying at unexpected times. There was always reassurance and validation towards their emotions and bringing a sense of normalcy to this event.
It has been three months since the deaths and my little guy is still processing it.
Actually so am I.
Every morning he wants to know the day’s schedule. If it’s a school day, than I brace for his scream and whimpering repeats of “No, I don’t want to go!”and”Please stay with me.” My heart breaks as I see him struggle. I validate his feelings and remind him that I always come back.
The same situation goes for a babysitter or the gym’s child care. He holds my fingers tight, sometimes wraps his entire body on me and then begins to cry and plead to go home. As soon as I physically separate and I am no longer in his eyesight, he begins to calm down. The tears dry up and he is able to engage with the caretaker and other kids.
Over the past couple months, I have been working with him to decrease his anxiety and cope with the underlying issue of grief.
Here are the strategies that I have put into place
We have a typical routine for the day and week. I try to make sure that we stay on schedule and that he is aware of any changes.
One on One Time
It is really important that I make time for him throughout the day. We snuggle on the couch in the mornings, have talks in the car and I get on the floor and play with him a few times during the day. I use the child-centered play approach and let him lead our play. This has been the most eye opening time for me as parent to see that he is still processing the deaths. His themes have been about loss, “Sister horse is sad because her mommy, daddy and brother died.” Play is how kids work through things. He is able to stay in the metaphor of play and feel safe expressing his emotions.
Hide and Seek
We have also been playing a lot of games that are about going away and coming back. He loves hide and seek and he is getting reassured through play that I will return.
Confidence with Caretakers
I show my confidence in knowing that his caretakers will help him feel safe and secure while I am away. For instance, we just joined a new gym with lots of new child care staff. I made sure to introduce myself and my son to each person to help them establish a rapport. It has worked tremendously.
At the age of three, my son is still learning about feelings. Throughout the day, I name, validate and normalize his feelings. I help him find ways to cope with unpleasant emotions of anger, sadness and frustration by taking deep breathes, getting a cuddle or just letting out a good cry. I also read books on this topic, do crafts and play with him in front of a mirror so he can see his many different feeling faces.
Before I leave my son, I ask what he needs from Mommy. Is it a million hugs, kisses and silly dances today? I then pretend to fill up his pockets with these requests and sometimes others, so that he feels like he has a piece of me while I am away. Using humor, I imitate how he can take out a hug or kiss to help him feel better, but he better not show his friends mommy’s silly dances. By then he is full of giggles and a confident smile. The Invisible String and The Kissing Hand are also amazing books about separation.
To be honest, it is exhausting at times to see him struggle with the separation, especially the whining. But I get it, this is a big deal to him. He needs to know that I will meet him where he is at and have patience while he works through it.