Does this scenario sound familiar to you?
Your little one has been having a great morning. Plenty of sleep, no lost lovies, there were the appropriate amount of purple Froot Loops in their bowl — all good!
Then you get into the car to drive to preschool and things start going downhill fast. They start clinging to your leg, the tears start falling, and no amount of “but you’ll have so much fun with your friends” seems to work. It doesn’t help that their routine has been off due to COVID. From seeing fewer people to staying at home more, everything just feels different.
What is attachment theory?
Turns out there’s a scientific theory that explains why this scenario sounds so familiar to many of us as parents — attachment theory.
Put simply, attachment theory is how researchers, most notably psychiatrist John Bowlby, have found the parent child relationship forms. This starts from the basics of “who in this room is getting me food when I’m hungry, I like that person” — to, “who makes me feel safe when there are monsters under the bed, I need that person.”
As children learn who’s going to be meeting their basic needs (learning theory of attachment) or who they will be able to form social bonds with based on who is reacting to their cries or smiles (evolutionary theory of attachment), the relationships they create start solidifying.
How caregiver attachments develop early in life can be broken out into four attachment styles that can impact how children develop connections down the road. These may seem familiar to you as an adult as we all work out how we behave in relationships.
- Secure: trusting, communicative, flexible, tuned into emotions.
- Anxious: very sensitive, difficult time communicating, may act out when triggered.
- Avoidant: self-reliant, downplays how important relationships are.
- Fearful: low self-esteem, more dependent, fears rejection.
Attachment theory and separation anxiety
If reading about attachment theory is sending you down a spiral of intense worry about how every action you take is going to impact your child for the rest of their lives, first of all — take deep breaths!
Second, you aren’t alone. As parents we worry, and this year has increased our anxiety in so many ways as we navigate the complexities of a global pandemic. It has increased our children’s anxiety too and we all need to work through it together.
How that worry might be manifesting itself in children is through separation anxiety. Routines have been changed significantly, children have been spending much more time at home, and despite how much we try to shield young ones from the scariness of the world, they can still feel it. They are clingy, nervous, and stressed without adult coping mechanisms to manage it. All of this makes us want our moms even as adults, of course children are going to have a tough time.
So how do we help children through this difficult time and manage separation anxiety? Here are some tips.
1. Let them in on the plan
A big part of attachment is feeling secure, and we all get a greater sense of security when we know what’s going to happen next. Without a crystal ball we can’t be sure exactly what the next year is going to look like, but we can help our nervous children know what is going to happen the next day.
The night before school or daycare, walk your child through the plan for the day ahead including when you’ll do things and in what order. Giving little ones this peek ahead into the day will be a reminder that you are going to be apart for a little while but you’ll be back to get them, and they are going to have lots of fun in between.
2. Bring a bit of home
Maybe your child can’t bring you everywhere they go, but they can keep your love and comfort close. A well-loved plush toy they can squeeze onto tight when they get worried is always a good bet for soothing nerves.
To make this even more comforting, give the teddy bear, bunny, or sloth (hey, every kid has their own thing!) a big hug and fill it with “Mommy or Daddy Love” before handing it over to your child at school or bedtime. Then your child can hug their lovie close when they need to feel you there.
3. Quick goodbyes
When our children are having a difficult time leaving us it can be very tempting to stay and soothe them for as long as they need. However, that plan can sometimes backfire into prolonging the goodbye and making it harder.
Instead, a quick goodbye ritual with a hug, a kiss, and “I'll be back after your afternoon snack!” without a lot of extra fanfare can be a lot easier for children. Honestly, it can be a lot easier for you too. Even if the goodbye is hard the first few times, children will get used to the new routine and eventually have an easier time separating.
4. Limit the scaries
Fear can play a big part in attachment - fear of new people, fear something may happen to them, fear something may happen to you. There’s a lot of scary stuff in the world right now and this can kick separation anxiety up a notch (or many notches!)
To ease your child’s fears, limit their exposure to news programs or discussions about COVID that are not age appropriate. Make sure they know what they can control - wearing their masks and washing their hands - and that super smart people are working really hard to make everyone better.
Also consider limiting exposure to other scary things like TV shows or movies that make them nervous. Decreasing fear levels helps in easing separation anxiety, so stick with happy programs that don’t leave them hiding under the covers.
Separation anxiety is challenging for children and parents alike but these tools can help to ease children back into their routines and find a good balance of “at home” and “away from home.” Keep in mind that separation anxiety is different from a separation anxiety disorder and if you have concerns that your family may need some additional help, see your pediatrician.