Before having kids, I considered myself to be a semi-rational person who wouldn’t spoil her children so they grow up resilient and strong.
Cut to having a baby in a pandemic.
I was still nursing my 17-month-old on-demand six times a day when I had to take my first solo weekend away from her. Somehow, I hadn’t separated from my daughter for more than a few hours in her entire almost-two-year-old life. Now I would be gone for three days out of the blue.
So what’s a super stressed journalist mom to do? Interview every parenting expert on the planet, of course. In true Type A (for anxiety) fashion, let my middle-of-the-night sweats be your going-away prep.
Before you spend weeks creating endless to-do lists to help your toddler while you’re away, take a step back and prep yourself first.
While I was trying to solve every potential separation problem in my sleep, I was actually creating more stress in the process. Child Development Specialist Dr. Siggie Cohen, PhD reminded me to work on my anxiety first before trying to solve my daughter’s discomfort since one leads to the other.
When you get nervous, she says, remind yourself that anxiety develops from a lack of trust — in yourself, in your child, and her caretakers. That mental reframe changed everything for me.
Next, point out your emotions; trying not to feel them just makes them grow. Tell yourself something like, “I’m anxious. Okay, I’m forgetting my own trust.” Ask yourself, what can I do to help me before I can help her? How you talk to yourself is crucial, advises Dr. Siggie. That’s where trust in yourself begins.
Try a soothing mantra like, “Right now this is tough, but somehow, we’re going to get through it.” Use it as your guide during the getaway.
Finally, she reminded me that change is not only part of life but an opportunity for growth. “Routines can be slightly broken from time to time,” Dr. Siggie says. “It’s okay because this is how children learn to navigate challenges and not be too rigid. You are letting her know that sometimes change happens and we do have the skills, and the capacity, to manage through it.”
Once you’ve made peace with your own fears, you can start prepping your child. Separation anxiety is highest between 8 and 18 months. The best way to help your little one is to prepare them beforehand to give them time to adjust and to avoid an abrupt transition.
“Mommy leaving is a fact that cannot change that will trigger an emotion in your child that they need help coping with,” explains Dr. Siggie. In this case, the more verbal prep you provide, the better to match the difficult emotions that will inevitably arise.
Dr. Siggie recommends starting by narrating the idea of being away long before the trip. On a regular basis, start saying things like “Mommy’s here right now. Yesterday, you had lunch with Daddy.” Name some very specific situations where she can fully relate to the memory of you being there and not being there so she can understand that you always come back.
Another trick is laying the foundation for all of her caretakers to remind her that she’s cared for not just by Mama. Ask her things like: “Who takes care of Nadia? Dada, Papa, and Nana, that’s right. Who else?” “Now you’re playing with Mama, but sometimes Suzy plays with you when Mama’s not here, right?” “Sometimes Mama changes the diaper and sometimes Dada changes the diaper.”
Pediatrician Dr. Kelly Fradin recommends using storytelling tools to help prep your toddler for the general idea of separation days or weeks before you go. She loves books like Owl Babies and The Kissing Hand, along with songs like Daniel Tiger Neighborhood’s “Grownups Come Back.”
“Children often really resonate with these very simple sweet songs,” Fradin says. “And I’ve seen children even sing it to themselves when they miss their parents.”
Because toddler minds under four don’t grasp the concept of time, it’s better to tell them about your trip the day of or the day before — but no earlier than that. “Telling her too far in advance might lead her to experience more anxiety,” Fradin says.
Dr. Siggie adds that if your anxiety is at its highest right before your trip, try saying goodbye early. “The more you will feel anxious, the more your child will, so maybe leave an hour before you need to and get a Starbucks somewhere,” she suggests.
Try not to tell your toddler you’re leaving before what Dr. Fradin calls an “anchor point” like a nap, bedtime, or meal when she’s more likely to be cranky and have a big reaction. “If you can leave when she’s busy, happy, and engaged, she’ll tolerate the actual leaving better, which might be the most stressful part for you both,” she says.
Instead, Dr. Fradin recommends a time of day that is usually their happiest, like right after lunch when they’re outside, for example. Pick a fun, playful moment where they will be more receptive to the message.
What matters more than what you say is how you say it. “If you say it with a calm confidence, your kid will pick up on that vibe,” Dr. Fradin says. “If you say it from a place of uncertainty, they may pick up on that vibe too.”
She advises telling your child when you’re ready to leave, giving a calm, confident goodbye, and making it pretty short. “If you have a long protracted goodbye, she’ll get more and more amped up about it,” Dr. Fradin says.
She suggests keeping it simple at this age: “Mommy has to go away for work. Mommy loves you. Daddy will take good care of you. And I’ll see you again soon.”
Remind yourself that you’re not trying to convince your child that everything is going to be great, which can feel inauthentic and invalidating. “You are narrating a situation and allowing her to process it because you’re talking about it,” Dr. Siggie says.
It’s better to let her know it’s ok to be sad and miss Mama than to pretend everything will be perfect with this major life change.
Pediatrician Dr. Mona Amin is also a big believer in prep because “there's a verbal expectation of what is happening,” which is helpful for Mom too. “I'm explaining the boundary and I'm explaining what's happening to my child,” she says.
Dr. Mona recommends saying “sleeps” instead of days if you want to give a more robust explanation: “Mommy loves these moments so much, and I know you love these moments too. Mommy's going away for two sleeps, and when I get back, we're going to do this again, right?”
This may be counterintuitive, but Dr. Fradin does not recommend calling or Facetiming, which might only remind your child that you’re not there.
Dr. Mona agrees: “I imagine if she sees you and can't touch you, it's going to be really hard for her. And it will be hard for you if she starts crying and you feel helpless thousands of miles away.”
Remember that kids can adjust to situations better than we may think they can. Adopt a mindset that your child may cry, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
"I know crying can be difficult, but remember it isn't a bad thing in this situation," says Dr. Mona. "Crying means that they're learning a new skill, going through change, or learning a new adjustment in their routine. It can happen when they don't want to do something, like brushing teeth for example, but we want to verbally reassure and commit to the plan, because we got to do these things, right?"
Finally, remind yourself that everything you’re worried about might be just that — a worry that doesn’t come true.
“It’s quite likely that it’s going to be harder on you, as a parent, than it will on her.” Dr. Fradin says. “While most children will sometimes vigorously protest when the parent leaves, often they can cope quite well.”
“So don’t assume that it’s going to be devastating for her because it might just be fine,” she continues. “And that doesn’t mean that your presence isn’t important to her; it just means that she is well adjusted and well supported by the other loving caregivers in her life.”
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