Separation Anxiety

Reading about the childcare crisis in America has me reliving my own experiences in the early 1970s as a young mother.  The situation is not new.  A lot of research into the effects of separating very young children from their mother is now available.

This is what happens inside children when they are forcibly separated from their parents.

Their heart rate goes up. Their body releases a flood of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. Those stress hormones can start killing off dendrites — the little branches in brain cells that transmit mes­sages. In time, the stress can start killing off neurons and — especially in young children — wreaking dramatic and long-term damage, both psychologically and to the physical structure of the brain.

“The effect is catastrophic,” said Charles Nelson, a pediatrics professor at Harvard Medical School. “There’s so much research on this that if people paid attention at all to the science, they would never do this.”

And yet, in many families, whether due to low income, a single parent household or other factors, children as young as infants must be cared for by some person other than their parents, whether the couple is fortunate enough to afford a nanny or commercial childcare is the only choice.  In the luckiest families, there is a grandmother or aunt who is able, willing and loving to step in.

Suggestions for managing anxiety are to allow at least some preparation time before the necessary separation.  One is to listen to your child’s words of fear.  I remember one family style daycare I had placed my daughter within.  She loved it – at first.  Then, she started exhibiting upset around going there.  One morning after dropping her off and going to work, it troubled me so much that I went back to check on her.  Through the door with a window on top, I could see her being bullied by an older child and there were no adults in sight to intervene.  I removed her right then and found a private home, a woman with a child who wanted a companion for her only child.  My daughter was never better cared for than when she was in that situation.

A few other suggestions include sharing with the child where it is you are going.  Better yet, allow them to visit your workplace so they have a realistic idea of the circumstances and the lack of other children in that place.  Build in your child a realistic expectation of when you will return, how long you will be gone and when possible an exact time the child can expect you to re-appear.

Give a hug but be pragmatic about the necessity that you will have to leave for awhile.  Be gentle and calm, but clear and focused.

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