Child with separation anxiety

How To Deal With Separation Anxiety

(15 Tips For Babysitters)

When parents leave, it can be quite a traumatic experience for the children you're babysitting. Especially if they haven't been left with a sitter before. Knowing how to effectively deal with separation anxiety will help you avoid a lot of stress and tears.

How do babysitters deal with separation anxiety? Let kids say goodbye to their parents before they leave, but don't draw it out too long. Try to distract kids with their favorite toy as their parents are leaving to keep them from getting more upset. Empathize with them, stay calm and help them work through it without talking about mom or dad.

In this article, you'll learn what separation anxiety is, what it looks like, and how to help minimize the effects while you're babysitting.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a reaction that kids may have when they're being separated from their parents, caregivers, siblings, or anybody else in their life that they have a strong emotional attachment to. If you spend a lot of time with a particular child, they might even experience some separation anxiety when it's time for you to leave!

It's actually totally natural for young kids to feel anxious when saying goodbye to their parents up until around age 6. So depending on the age of the children you're babysitting, don't be surprised if there are tantrums, crying, or general clinginess when their parents go to leave.

Separation anxiety is a completely normal part of child development. It certainly wouldn't have been very good for the survival of babies in the past if they were completely indifferent to their parents leaving them!

Separation anxiety can manifest in different children in different ways. The level of intensity of their separation anxiety will also vary greatly from kid to kid.

How Babysitters Can Deal With Separation Anxiety

Watching a child crying and throwing a tantrum because of separation anxiety can be a heart-wrenching experience for both parents and babysitters alike. But there are steps you can take to minimize the impact of their parents leaving for the night.

You may not be able to stop the tears entirely. But hopefully, you'll be able to use these tips to at least lessen the duration and intensity of them.

1. Let Them Say Their Goodbyes

Always give kids a chance to say goodbye to their parents when they're heading out. Let their parents give them a hug and say goodbye, and then stand at the door with the child and wave bye-bye to them as they go.

Sometimes parents will try to sneak out without their kids noticing, in an attempt to lessen the impact. But letting parents sneak out will often make things way worse. Kids can be calmer in the short term while they don't know, but as soon as they realize their parents are nowhere to be found, they're prone to freak out.

You don't want to set kids up with the idea that their parents can just disappear suddenly and without warning at any moment. It can lead to worse anxiety in the future whenever their parents leave their sight.

2. Don’t Let Goodbyes Last Too Long!

Giving parents and kids a chance to say their goodbyes is important. But once that happens and they start to leave, they shouldn't come back for more.

Parents will often feel bad when they leave and their child starts crying. So they'll run back for one more hug or kiss before they go. But this only draws out the separation process longer and creates more stress for kids. Letting parents come back when their kid cries will encourage them to cry to get their parents to return or stay for a little bit longer every time!

So as hard as it is, talk about it beforehand with parents and ask them not to come back once they walk away or close the door.

3. Allocate Extra Time Before Parents Leave

Part of what can make saying goodbye stressful for kids is if it feels rushed. If parents are frantic to get out the door because they have a taxi waiting or they have a dinner reservation at a specific time to make, they might seem frazzled and not giving their full attention to saying goodbye to their child.

Ask if you can get a bit more time designated for that transition time before parents leave. That way their child will be able to settle down and get started on some activity before they leave, instead of parents having to immediately rush out the door as soon as you get there.

Make sure to leave a couple of minutes to say goodbye to the child at the end of your babysitting job too, if they're still awake.

4. Don't Take Separation Anxiety Too Personally

If a child is crying because of separation anxiety, all it means is that they miss their parents. It doesn't mean that you're doing a bad job as a babysitter.

It seems obvious, but this can be tough to remember. Particularly if the child you're babysitting lashes out at you as a way of expressing their unhappiness.

Just try to work through it, knowing most kids will get over it within 15 minutes. Avoid getting too defensive or taking what kids say in the middle of a tantrum to heart.

Do you babysit a particularly difficult child? Read my article How to Babysit a Difficult Child (4 Steps to Success) to make your life a little easier!

5. Stay Positive And Calm

The child you're babysitting might be too young to understand words yet. But they still have a great instinct when it comes to reading the emotions of people around them. Any negativity or apprehension will be quite apparent to them.

Work with parents to make sure that you're both being as cheerful and calm as possible when it's time for them to say goodbye. They might be a bit anxious about leaving their child alone with a babysitter for a few hours too, but they need to do their best not to let that show. Any apprehension will rub off on their kid and make the separation process harder.

Keeping a brave face on might be easier said than done, and some parents may not be able to leave their kid alone for the first time without breaking down in tears themselves. But if they're able to avoid it and stay strong until they close the door, it will make the process a lot easier on their kid, and therefore easier on you.

6. Keep the Kids Distracted

When the child's parents are getting ready to leave, you should have a toy or some other kind of activity ready to distract them.

For babies, this might be their favorite pacifier or blanket. Or for older kids, you can give them their favorite toy to play with. You might also want to try experimenting with snacks, like giving baby cookies to kids as their parents leave. Anything that helps divert their focus and attention onto something else will help get their mind off the fact their parents are leaving.

Kids might still cry even if you give them some kind of distraction. But chances are that they'll be upset for a much shorter period of time.

The only thing to be mindful of is that you might create a dependency where the child always needs that particular toy whenever they're separated. So it might be better to try distracting them by playing a game of peek-a-boo, singing them a song, or some other activity that they enjoy instead.

Distractions are best if used preventatively before a meltdown starts. It's harder to distract kids and pull them away from throwing a tantrum than stopping it before it starts.

Not sure how to keep kids that you're babysitting busy? Check out my article - Fun things to do when Babysitting (205 Kids Games, Activities & Entertainment Ideas)

7. Avoid Talking About Mommy or Daddy When They're Gone

Once the initial separation anxiety of the night has subsided, avoid talking about mommy or daddy with the child unless they bring it up.

Needlessly reminding them that their parents are gone might rekindle some of their previous anxiety. Even if you have good intentions, like letting them know that mommy and daddy will be home soon, it's usually best not to say anything at all.

Of course, if the kid you're babysitting brings it up by asking where their parents are, then you should answer them. But if they're just playing and blissfully ignorant to the fact their parents are gone, don't bring it up and potentially re-open the emotional wound.

8. Make Sure There's No Other Reason The Child Could Be Crying

You might think that a child is throwing a tantrum because of separation anxiety. But just because their mood started around the same time that their parents left doesn't necessarily mean separation was the cause of it.

The child may have hurt themselves without you noticing. Maybe the family dog came up and took the toy out of their hands while you weren't looking. Or they might be trying to get out of something they don't want to do, like go to bed.

If you're watching a baby, check to make sure they don’t need changing and aren't just hungry or tired. Often they just want something to eat or to be rocked to sleep.

Separation anxiety is likely the reason a child is crying if they start as soon as their parents leave. But don't rule out that there might be other issues at play too. So if it's been a while and the child is still crying, start looking for other potential causes for them being upset.

9. Take a Moment to Gather Your Thoughts

If a child has been wailing for more than a few minutes after their parents have left, you might be starting to get frustrated when it seems like nothing will calm them down.

You can't leave the child alone, but don't be afraid to take a step back and take some deep breaths for a few moments to calm down. Just pulling yourself away from the situation for 20 or 30 seconds to regather your thoughts can be a big help. It's fine to let the child cry it out for a short period of time while you take a few breaths.

10. Don't Be Afraid To Call The Parents

If you're feeling completely overwhelmed and nothing you do will seem to calm the child down, as a last resort you might just have to call their parents. Especially if you've babysat for this child before without any issues, and something seems like it might be wrong. It's better to be safe and check with them to see what they want you to do. Or they might even want to come home themselves and make sure that everything is okay.

11. Empathize With The Child

Show the kids that you're babysitting that you understand how they're feeling when their parents leave. That will help show that you're on their side and it usually can prevent them from letting their frustration out on you.

Talk to them and let them know that it's okay that they miss their mom and dad, and tell them that their parents love them a lot too. Tell them about all the fun you're going to have together, and that their parents will be coming back soon.

Establish more of a bond by sitting on the floor with kids while you talk to them. That way you'll be on their level and they can see you more as a friend, as opposed to just someone who is in charge.

Giving kids an outline of the day can help them too. Let them know what kind of fun stuff you have in store like doing crafts, eating snacks, reading books, or going to the playground.

12. Get Familiar With The Child Ahead of Time

If parents are on board, it can really help to start getting acquainted with their child before you'll be left alone to babysit them.

You might come over ahead of time before your first babysitting shift just to familiarize yourself with the kids. Of course, parents would need to pay you for your time. But many are willing to have a trial babysitting shift while they're still in the house, just to make sure everything is going to go smoothly.

They might even want to have you over for dinner one time, just so the child is used to seeing your face as someone in their home.

If you aren't able to arrange a separate time to meet kids beforehand, at least see if you can schedule to arrive an extra 30 minutes or so early. That way you can spend some time getting to know the child while their parents are still there and form a bit of a bond. It will make it easier to transition when it's time for their parents to go.

13. Keep Childcare Consistent

Kids like consistency, so if they're able to regularly have the same babysitter, it will make separation easier on them than constantly having new caregivers.

I'm not sure exactly how you'd bring that up with the parents though!

But if their child is comfortable with you, it makes sense for them to keep using you for all of their babysitting needs. Which means more hours and consistent work for you.

14. Give Kids Jobs To Keep Them Busy

Preschoolers and toddlers do really well when they've got a job to do. It can help to give them a sense of control. So when you're babysitting kids in that age range, try to put them in charge of picking their own snacks, taking craft materials out of storage and carrying them to the table, or other little jobs.

Even something as basic as having them close the door and lock it when their parents leave can make a huge difference in helping to combat separation anxiety.

15. Know The Difference Between Regular Separation Anxiety versus Separation Anxiety Disorder

While it's normal for most young kids to feel separation anxiety, there's a more severe condition called separation anxiety disorder which can develop.

It's a lot less common than regular separation anxiety. It only happens in about 4% of kids. But that's still common enough that it's something you should be aware of and keep in mind.

Separation anxiety disorder is marked by a stronger fear of abandonment and a sense that something bad is going to happen. Like they'll get lost or kidnapped, or their parents will get in an accident or die.

Symptoms are more severe than the usual crying and tantrums associated with regular separation anxiety. They can include things like nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, and full-blown panic attacks. Kids with separation anxiety disorder may also have a fear of sleeping alone and experience frequent nightmares, although this isn't exclusive to just kids with separation anxiety.

If you suspect that a child you're babysitting has separation anxiety disorder, it's really something you'll need to talk to their parents about, because it will be difficult for you to solve on your own.

Conclusion

Separation anxiety is something you'll definitely come across as a babysitter, especially if you're watching toddlers or preschoolers. That's the age where it's most common.

Making some time to say goodbye will help kids adjust to their parents leaving. You can try to distract them with their favorite toy or activity to make it a bit easier for them.

If a child you're babysitting is struggling with separation anxiety after their parent leaves, stay calm and try to empathize with them. Let them know what they're feeling is okay, but let them know their parents will be back soon and you're going to have lots of fun with them in the meantime.

Written & Illustrated by:

 Matthew Taylor

Matthew Taylor

Kidsit Founder, Editor, Illustrator, and father of three beautiful kids in Sydney, Australia.

Published: 22 September 2019

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