How Setting Limits Can Heal Separation Anxiety




Patty Wipfler says that setting limits can be like a gift to our children. Here’s one example of how the Hand in Hand Parenting approach to setting limits works.

I am a full time mum to my 2 year old daughter, but occasionally I have to go to an all day meeting for my freelance work as an editor. Yesterday was one of those days, and my friend would be babysitting her. She has a daughter the same age as mine and they are ‘best friends.’ Before the day I’d talked a lot with my daughter about how she was going to the zoo with our friends, to prepare her, and check in to see how she felt about the separation. She always had a big smile on her face when I talked about it. When we met my friend to drop her off my daughter was so excited, and when I strapped her into my friend’s car seat, and continued chatting for a bit, my daughter pushed me away and said ‘bye.’ It was clear she wanted met to go so she could start her adventure! I felt so relieved.

When I got home in the evening my daughter was happy and animated, telling me about everything they’d done. It was clear she’d had a great time.

Then she started asking if she could play with my mobile phone, which I’ve been letting her do recently for our special time. She seemed really desperate to have it, and often I notice this desperation, when it’s not really about the thing she wants, but the feelings behind it. I decided to set a limit, and told her that she couldn’t play with my phone now. I felt like we needed some time to reconnect free of technology! She started to cry, and my husband picked her up. She started saying she wanted the phone, but then as she continued crying, she said, ”I want my mummy.” It became clear the feelings weren’t really about  the phone, but I assumed because she’d missed me a bit in the day. I held her and gave her lots of hugs till she felt better.

Thanks to learning about the Hand in Hand listening tool of setting limits, I could see when I could say no to something, and it could be like a gift to her, helping us connect so she could show me how she really felt. It had been a great adventure for her to spend the day away from me, but I guess because it was something new and different she had mixed feelings about it too. We felt close and connected for the rest of the evening, and I spent lots of time, reading books, playing and laughing. This morning she was joking about mummy saying bye bye, so she could go off with her friend again!

I’m really grateful to have learnt the Hand in Hand parenting tools, to know that releasing feelings  is a natural part of helping our children grow in confidence so they can take little steps away from us as they grow older.

Here’s some tips for helping with separation anxiety.

  1. Prepare your child beforehand. Even if they’re young, talk about where you’re going and how long the separation will last. If it’s an unusual separation that doesn’t normally happen you might want to start talking to them a week or so in advance. Sometimes hearing about the separation might bring up strong feelings. Listen to your child – Hand in Hand calls this staylistening) to help them release their anxiety. This can help your child to feel confident about the separation by the time it comes around.
  2. Have a long goodbye. It’s common that if our child gets upset when we separate from them we may be encouraged to rush off, and hear from the caregiver that they stopped crying once we left, and were fine. However we may find, that our child continues to get upset when we leave, or shows other signs of separation anxiety such as clingyness. If we take the time to listen and have a long goodbye with our child, then they can fully release their feelings, about how it feels to separate from us. Once their mind is no longer clouded by feelings of upset, they can think clearly, be confident we will return, and feel okay with us leaving. You can read more about the long goodbye here.
  3. Be Prepared For Feelings When We Return. Even if our child was fine with us leaving, they may have some feelings of upset that come up when we return. As in my example above these feelings may be projected onto a ‘pretext’ that masks the real reason for the upset. If our child seems to have strong feelings about something small there may be a deeper reason for the upset, we can try to set limits, and listen to the feelings to help our child heal.

Separation anxiety can make us feel powerless or guilty. We often feel like we have two choices. Either we stay with our clingy child even though we desperately need some ‘me’ time.

Or we rush away , feeling bad about our child’s protests about our leaving.

With Hand in Hand Parenting there is a third way, with setting limits and listening to feelings, we can both be at peace with separation.

Learn more –You can download a free setting limits booklet, from Hand in Hand parenting. There are also online self-study courses on Setting limits and Say Goodbye To Separation Anxiety.

You can also check out the separation anxiety chapter in my book Tears Heal: How to listen to our children

3 thoughts on “How Setting Limits Can Heal Separation Anxiety

  1. This really struck a chord with me ! Hector is almost two, and the tantrums are kicking off nicely, but as you say it’s important to let him express his feelings so we can get to the real cause (even if it’s just a lingering feeling that he was wrongly denied a biscuit).
    When we go to the local playgroup I often hear people (especially child-minders) saying “don’t cry” or “we don’t shout” or “what’s wrong with you?” – and the child’s reaction makes me feel awful : I literally see them putting on a mask, and burying their real feelings. They know that they have to conform to the care-giver’s idea idea of a model child, or be punished.
    This suppression of natural emotions – especially in children- is shockingly unhealthy. One more reason why my partner and I are more and more determined in our decision to homeschool. The ramifications of clumsy and arbitrary decisions by third parties don’t bear thinking about. And yes, I used to be a ‘teacher’. 😔

  2. it is great that you respect Hector’s feelings. I do find that it definitely makes parenting easier (if you can ever call it easy!) because if a child can finish crying without being stopped, then the upset gets fully expressed, and so it doesn’t come out in more indirect ways, such as whining or aggression, or other off-track behaviours.
    Are you still living in France? I have also been thinking about homeschooling lately! Though it’s not so easy here in Switzerland because of the legalities. I hope that even if Ruby does go to school she’ll feel able to understand and express how she really feels and tell me if she doesn’t like it, rather than feel like she’s stuck doing something that makes her unhappy, 🙂

  3. We’re still in France, technically, but in the middle of the Indian Ocean ☺️
    From what I understand, the legal aspect kicks in in France starting from age 6, where we would be required to prove what he is learning – and try to tenuously link that to the national curriculum !
    I’m not overly worried about it, since we might not be living in France by then, or we may have decided that at age 6 he could benefit from some kind of formal schooling… The thing is that once a child IS enrolled, I think it’s then that removing them from the system becomes a bureaucratic nightmare.
    For me, one of the major disadvantages of early formal education is the obligation to conform, and become a passive learner; in that respect Playlistening would be a useful compensation for any child !

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