Angst-Free Absence

In this exclusive extract from new book Breaking Mum and Dad, Anna Williamson and Dr Reetta Newell explore separation anxiety and how to sort it

Separation anxiety occurs when a person experiences excessive anxiety regarding separation from home or from people they have a strong emotional attachment to, for example, a parent, caregiver or siblings. Although separation anxiety is a perfectly normal part of childhood, it can be very unsettling and upsetting for both the child and the parent. Understanding what your child is going through and having a few coping strategies can really help both of you get through it.

Babies up to the age of six months tend to settle more easily than a child approaching a year old. This is simply due to developmental milestones – a slightly older baby has become more aware of Mummy or Daddy leaving, even if only into the other room. They may cry, become agitated and clingy when you start to leave, but in the main, these symptoms don’t last for too long, and as awful as it can feel when you say goodbye, the chances are that your baby has calmed down and been helpfully distracted by the time you’ve reached the front door. Try to view the positives in that any sign of separation anxiety from either you or your child means that a healthy bond has developed, and any feelings of guilt show you care.

Help make leaving your child a little easier for you both by being consistent with your actions. Your little one needs to build up trust and confidence in you, so when you leave, be firm, loving and actively communicate with a kiss and cuddle, and follow through with leaving (coming straight back or delaying will only cause more confusion and distress), and then make sure you return when you say you will.

Children take time to adjust to new surroundings and routines, but by being calm and consistent, listening to your child and going with your instinct, there’s every chance you’ll nip any separation anxiety in the bud in no time at all. And remember, you are not alone – you can go and weep with the other mums once you are out of sight of the front door!

Dr Reetta says…

Whatever you decide about going back to work, or not, there is no simple set of instructions or definite answers about what will be best for you and your baby. It is about working it out to the best of your ability as you go through it, and trying to balance all of your needs as a family.

Real ‘choices’ may be limited due to the complexity of individual family needs, workplace needs and finances. Parenting guides that push a prescribed way forward have no chance of capturing the richness and complexity of an individual family’s experience.
Something that often comes up in research and in my own clinical work, and as Anna and her husband are experiencing, is that many of today’s parents would like to combine parenthood and work, but many are faced with the dilemma of devoting themselves to either work or their children, not both. Everybody’s needs are different – and it also depends how flexible your work is.

On top of that, you have a baby with a unique temperament. You may have a high-needs baby, who reacts intensely to changes and separation, and only seems happy in your arms. It can feel overwhelming having to even think about work and childcare. As with other areas of parenting, there aren’t any guarantees, nor is there a magic formula to make this transition easy, but there are some things you can do (see tips 2 and 3) to make it smoother.

Separation anxiety is a phase in your child’s development. Often the worst of it occurs between nine and 12 months, which is coincidentally right when many mothers are returning to work, but it can continue until the age of three, or later. It may return when your child is sick or under stress, or at later stages of childhood, such as when they are starting school or going back after the holidays.

Dealing with decisions on work and separation from your baby

1. Dana Breen, a renowned psychoanalyst and author, talks about ‘the hurdle model’ in her book, Talking with Mothers. This is when a person prepares to and then does overcome a difficulty, and how life afterwards goes back to normal – think about when you have overcome hurdles with education and work, preparing for exams, job interviews, presentations and then you’ve relaxed afterwards. As Breen points out, becoming a mother is not like that (and I would add, the same goes for many fathers). Women and men may have done a lot of preparation for the birth and got through it, but what they are faced with afterwards doesn’t follow the same model – there won’t be any period of relaxation after the big event! Instead, there will be hurdle after hurdle, whatever you do in regards to work and childcare. Anna says “trust in change and allow it to settle down”. Try to embrace chaos and difference, or however life looks like now, compared to how it looked before parenthood. This will soon become your ‘new normal’.

2. Whether you are going back to work or not, there will be times when you’re going to be separated from your child. If you are reluctant to separate, it reinforces the fear of separation in your child. It is common for parents to try to avoid ‘causing’ their child any worry or upset. At the same time, feeling slightly upset when leaving your child is normal. However, with separation anxiety some things that parents do can cause the child’s anxiety to get bigger. Have a think: is there anything about how you approach separation (your body language, tone of voice, what you say) that you would like to try to change?

3. Although it’s hard to leave your child with a caregiver while they’re distressed, as Anna says, there is a positive aspect to separation anxiety: it can indicate a healthy attachment between you and your child. Teach your child that people do return: playing peek-a-boo, hide-and- seek and reading books in which people come back can be helpful with this. Some of my favourite children’s books on this topic are: The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn, Mama Always Comes Home by Karma Wilson, Llama Llama Misses Mama by Anna Dewdney, and The Invisible String by Patrice Karst.


Breaking Mum And Dad The Insider’s Guide to Parenting Anxiety by Anna Williamson (Green Tree, £12.99) is out now