Separtion anxiety worry

20 Playful Ways To Heal Separation Anxiety

By Kate Orson


When it’s time to say goodbye to our child we may often hear the advice that it’s best to rush off even if they’re crying. Later we may be reassured by their caregiver that they stopped crying as soon as we left and were fine.

However we may be worried that our child wasn’t happy being left and that we are spending too much time away from them. Our child may continue to cry every time we leave, and we may be filled with guilt about leaving.

When our child gets upset about us leaving, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t like their caregiver or that the need to be with us 24-7. It’s quite natural for children to have multiple attachments to other adults and benefit from being raised by a ‘village.’

It is often more likely that separating from us triggers deeper fears, and emotions in our child, that they need us to listen to. It’s not the separation per se that is the problem, but just that this moment stirs up memories of times when they felt scared or upset. It could be from early experiences such as a difficult birth, separation from us for medical treatment, or just the everyday separation anxiety that all children go through.

Memories, experiences and upsets can cloud a child’s thinking, so they don’t feel safe to leave us. In terms of the brain science our child’s limbic system senses an emotional emergency, so the pre-frontal cortex- the part of the brain responsible for rational thinking, and language can’t function well. In those moments even if we tell our child that we’ll be back later, they may be too upset to process the words we are saying.

There is a different way of handling goodbyes. Instead of the short goodbye approach, we can try the complete opposite and try a long goodbye which Hand in Hand Instructor Katy Linsley talks about in her article.  We can listen to their upset, staying with them as they cry, and express how hard it is for us to go. When we do so, our child can heal from difficult experiences and grow in confidence. When they’re no longer upset, they’ll be able to understand (at least roughly!) what we mean when we say we’ll be back in an hour. Then they will be able to hug us goodbye with a smile on their face (at least most of the time!) enjoying the love and attention of others, and feel safe that we will return.

It doesn’t always work out that way! There have been times when I’ve left my daughter somewhere, and she hasn’t cried, but I’ve sensed that she’s feeling disconnected. She might be unable to look me in the eye or fully acknowledge that I’m leaving. I know she still has feelings under the surface, and at those times I didn’t feel completely comfortable about leaving her either.

At times like these, or if we’re listening to a lot of upsets about separation, we might want to build connection with our child around the theme of separation. Here are some fun, Playlistening games in which the child can take on the more powerful role, with lots of laughter to release fear and tension.

Sometimes all our child needs is a few giggles and then they’ll be happy to separate from us. At other times the laughter might trigger tears afterwards. We don’t want to use games as a distraction from upsets, as it’s most helpful simply to stay with whatever our child feels in the moment. But they are an effective way to help our children get closer to their feelings, so they can let them go. As we try out these Hand in Hand Parenting Tools we’ll get a feel for when we need to listen to an upset, or when a more playful approach will work better.

I hope you have fun playing these games. Some can be played at the moment of separation, others are great in preparation for a separation, or to reconnect afterwards. They can take a bit of time so if we do need to go out, we might want to factor in a bit of extra time. It’s an investment because every time we build connection with our child separation will become easier. Repeat each one while the giggles keep flowing.

#1. Peek a boo – is a classic one to play with babies to help them understand about object permanence – that when we go away we will come back. Torsten Klaus from Dad’s Talk Community says, ”A few weeks ago, when I didn’t see my then six-month-old daughter for the afternoons, I would come home and she wasn’t quite sure whether to smile at me or not. I always smiled at her, did the baby-sign-language sign for ‘Papa’, and then my wife and I would play peekaboo with her for a few minutes. After playing that she would be happily on my arm and smile at me.”

#2. I hope you don’t pull me back – When we leave we can invite our child to play simply by telling them what we hope they won’t do, in a playful tone. So we might say, ”I’m just going to go out the door now, I hope nobody tries to pull me back in.” Let our child grab us by the arm and pull us back into the house. We can fling ourselves back in and land on the sofa for extra cuddles goodbye.

#3. Wrong coat, wrong shoesPlaylistening is really very simple. We don’t need to be an award winning comedian. Our child will love it if we just make some silly mistakes So try to put on daddy’s coat, or your child’s shoes, and then say, ”oh whoops, silly me, that’s not right!”You could also try leaving while still in your pajamas or a towel after just stepping out of the shower.

#4. Leave with child by mistake – This is good to try if your child is old enough to understand what’s going on and won’t get confused, and think they’re really coming too. Get ready, grab your child’s hand, walk to the door and open it. Then look at your child and say, ”oh! You’re here! I’m meant to go by myself aren’t I! Oh dear, let me try that again.”

#5. Going the wrong way – Get all ready to leave, and then go the wrong way. Open the bathroom or bedroom or even a cupboard door. Then say, ”oh hang on, that’s not how I leave the house is it? Now where is that front door?”

#6. Child pushes you out – As you are getting ready by the door, say loudly ”I’m not quite ready to go yet, I hope no-one pushes me out the door,” inviting your child to be the one to take the power and push you away. Then come back in and say, ”hey! Wait I’m not ready yet, I need some more kisses!

#7. Taking strange objects when you leave – Think aloud when you are about to leave the house, telling your child you need to get your coat/hat/bag. But instead, pick up a broom or a saucepan, or other strange objects that you would never leave the house with, saying, ”Oh whoops, that’s not right! I don’t need to take a broom/saucepan with me, let me try again.”

#8. They’re mine – One parent takes hold of the child, and says, ”They’re mine!” Then the other one tries to take the child, and playfully ‘pulls’ them away, saying ”no, they’re mine!” The parents have a playful tug of war with their child, and they get to soak up lots of warm, loving connection with both parents. Hand in Hand Instructor Hannah Gauri Ma  says, ”my daughter loved this one, too – especially after the arrival of her sibling, when she felt she was not as important to us and didn’t get as much of our time.”

#9. Hidden Kisses, Ariadne Brill from Positive Parenting Connection says, ”My daughter and I had a ritual of leaving hidden kisses tucked away behind her shirt collar or on the butterfly of her sweater, the sleeves etc.. She could then check in on the kisses if she missed me and take one. Now that she is a bit older we exchange kisses every morning that we leave in each others necklace pendants.”

#10. I can’t leave you yet! Shaheen Merali, Hand in Hand instructor in London, UK  Just before I was about to go, I would hold my daughter and say that I’m giving her to dad now. Then at the last minute I would pull her back and insist that I couldn’t do it, that I didn’t want to let her go, etc. We were near a bed so then this extended into her walking on the bed away from me towards her dad. Just before she reached his outstretched arms she’d suddenly ‘escape’ and run back to me. After a while of playing this  she had released enough fear so that she felt safe to be held by her dad. Then she would run to me to give a hug goodbye but then just before reaching my arms, she’d ‘escape’ and run back to him instead. With this game, we moved from lots of tears and Staylistening before I left, to lots of giggling and a hug goodbye!

#11. Role Reversal Play Hand in Hand Instructor Rachel Schofield suggests we reverse the roles at a different time to actual separation. Say “nooo don’t leave me” child either gets quite insistent that they have to go or says “okay I’ll stay.” The following few tips have some useful role reversal play ideas.

#12. Abandoning Dolls. My daughter initiated this game, when she was quite young, and we used to go outside to do Special Time with her dolls. She would be carrying them along, and then would suddenly throw them down and run away laughing. It was clear she was playing with separation.  I would act in the voice of the dolls saying, ”Hey! Don’t leave me!” and chase after her. You could try initiating  this game while playing with dolls or cuddly toys, saying ”I hope you don’t leave me,” or ”I hope you don’t have to go out to work,” etc.

#13. Super Parrot From Shaheen Merali. We changed a parrot puppet we had into ‘Super Parrot!’ (Say it with all the shabang of Super Man for more impact) Super Parrot claimed to be strong and powerful and no problem was scary for him, least of all separation. However, when it came down to it, he was terrified and hide and cry, etc. Then we would reassure him (after giggles of course) and he would slowly emerge and be a part of it. Before getting worried about something else, of course!

#14. Don’t Go Dino – From Skye Munroe of Nurturing Connections in Australia. My friend’s son was going through separation anxiety and he really REALLY loved dinosaurs! So we did lots role play using the dinosaurs and one dino we actually ended up making DONT GO the dino … Lots of over the top dramatic expression from DONT GO every time another dino got a little far away .

#15. Sad Puppy – Hannah Gauri Ma says, ”One of my daughter’s  faves (which she initiated, really) was that she would hand me her favorite puppy (stuffed toy) and say, ‘bye, I am going to work’ and off she would go. I experimented with the puppy having different reactions (like being happy in ‘day care’, with me) but by far the one she most enjoyed and asked for over and over again was when the puppy cried and cried and cried while she was gone. Then she would come back and the puppy would be over the moon with excitement to see her. Rinse and repeat.”

#16. Stuck together with glue -Hand in Hand instructor Rachel Schofield says. To be played anytime with clingy child + good for kid who find separation difficult. You have an imaginary pot of glue “hey I’m going to stick myself to you so you can’t get away from me” paint glue on them and stick your arm/hand on and go every where they go, holding on tight and refusing to let go. Follow laughs. They might enjoy you being that close or insist you get unstuck (so you pretend to get upset). Let them guide the direction. As with role reversal the aim is for YOU to be the one wanting to be with them and not wanting them to go – this is refreshing and gives them a chance to feel powerful.

#17. Mummy Hands and Baby Hands – My daughter went through a phase where she wanted to role play that her hands were the baby hands, and mine were the mummy’s. She had just started playgroup, and this was quite a ‘clingy’ game. Then I realized I could help her laugh and release tension, by telling the baby hands that they couldn’t run away too far, or climb too high etc. etc. She loved acting out the ‘naughty’ baby hands that would run away laughing, and I would catch her up, and say in a playful ‘telling off’ voice, ”no, no,no, baby hands that’s too far, you need to stay close to your mummy.”

#18. Silly Scenarios – My 4-year old daughter was going to be babysat by a friend of mine for the first time, and I could tell she was feeling a bit nervous about it. So I decided to make up some silly stories about how she was going to get back. So I told her that our imaginary friend who lives in the clouds, would make an airplane out of clouds to pick her up and take her home. Then I told her that if she dug a hole in our friend’s carpet she would find an underground tunnel that led back to our house. Or if she ran a bath in our friend’s bathroom, it would turn into a warm river and she could swim home. Or that my friend had a horse in the garden that she could ride home. Each time I’d tell her a silly scenario she would laugh and then ask me to say a new one. When my friend arrived to pick her up, she told her she was going to go in a tunnel to her house. She had a big smile on her face, and was much more upbeat about going with her.

#19. Separation at bedtime – Separation fears often come up at bedtime and this can be a great time to play. How about reversing the roles and getting your child to ”put you to bed,” with you seemingly going along with it. They can shut your bedroom door and run away.  Then you jump up and open the door, acting all surprised saying ”hey, did you just put me to bed? I’m not ready for bed yet!” This can be a great one to play also with 2 children as conspiring against you can help diffuse sibling rivalry.

#20. After separations: “The checklist game” – Look all over their body to check everything is still there, such as legs, arms, bogies, love, and anything funny and silly that you can think of –  from Chiara Rossetti, featured in Marion Rose’s Attachment Play course – which has all sorts of fun games to increase connection and help with family challenges.

I hope you enjoy this list of games. If you try them out do let us know how you get on in the comments, and if you have any fun ways of dealing with separation we’d love to hear from you!

Kate Orson is a mother to a 4 year old daughter. Originally from the UK she now lives in Basel, Switzerland.

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