Although I know that separation anxiety is a normal part of development, it doesn't make my 19-month old son look any less pitiful to me when he cries bloody murder when I leave him. Thank goodness he usually quits fairly quickly after I leave. I also have to remind myself that him displaying this behavior means that he has age-appropriate social-emotional, communication, and cognitive skill development.
This past week was a bit unusual for us. My husband was gone most of the week on a business trip. And although I worked two days this week as usual, I also attended a two day professional conference. That means my son had four LONG days away from me. It also meant the two work days were spent with the babysitter, who he absolutely adores; and that Grandma came to stay two days with us so I could attend the conference. Although my son loves my mother-in-law, she is not his Mommy. When I came home on Friday evening, he clung to me not even wanting to let me go to the bathroom on my own! Once again I reminded myself this is normal, and that one day 10 years from now, I'll wish he wanted me around all of the time.
Children who never display separation anxiety may have a good reason, but then again it is a "red flag" for a problem with social-emotional development such as with autism spectrum disorders, bonding and attachment disorders, and some developmental disorders. A child who lives with many adult family members or who has been in numerous foster homes may not show separation anxiety from the parent (or foster parent). However, the child in the foster home may display it later on once he is in a consistent home.
Separation anxiety starts around the time the child becomes mobile ( crawling and walking) and realizes he can be separate from his parent/ caregiver. It also emerges around the time of "object permanence", so the child is truly fearful that since he can't see you now, that you won't return. It typically diminishes once the child understands that Mommy (or Daddy) will come back later. By the preschool years when the child wants to play with other kids, he may be ecstatic when you drop him off to leave and cry when you come to pick him up. My daughter cried when I took her to her little preschool up to age 3 1/2 years; now that she is in kindergarten, she is excited to leave to the bus stop and be away from her parents!
Suggestions on helping separation anxiety to not be so devestating are:
1. Start out by leaving for only small amounts of time, then build up to longer times. For children who are carried in a sling much of the time and who co-sleep, a small separation may be as simple as him sitting in the high chair or standing in a bouncer while you are only 10 feet away. For another child, it may mean that you leave for 5 minutes to go get the mail outside or leave to run a 20 minute errand.
2. Be honest about your departure and your arrival. Don't sneak away or lie by saying you'll be right back unless that is truly the case.
3. For a child with special needs, maybe take him to a daycare, babysitter, church class, etc. that has a small adult-to-child ratio so he can get more individualized attention.
4. Let the child carry around a small photo book with pictures of you and other family members so he can look at them when he wants to.
5. Create conssistent "bye-bye" and "reuniting" routines. Predictability is calming for kids of all ages, especially babies and toddlers.
As I finish typing this with one hand, my son is up from his nap and clinging to me, which reminds me that separation for longer bouts of time than usual can increase clinging behavior for the next couple of days!