By Dhara Thakar Meghani
Pop quiz! Complete the sentence below:
Separation anxiety and the game of ‘peek-a-boo’…
A. …look the same across all cultures
B. …are products of the same developmental milestone
C. …have nothing to do with each other
Although it’s hard to believe that the innocuous hilarity of peek-a-boo has anything to do with the protests and cries characteristic of separation anxiety, both are products of the developmental advancement of object permanence. This capacity emerges around eight or nine months, and is observed in infants who suddenly show interest in looking for hidden objects and make it clear that they know that something is missing—people included!
While parents are thrilled that their relationship is progressing to a new level, they are also faced with the budding challenge of helping their child cope with the new and palpable anxiety of separation¹. A more focused attachment or bond has typically developed between infants and parents by now, and most infants are quite vocal when signaling a preference for a particular person to get their needs met².
Attachment is crucial to our survival as a species because it enables infants to seek comfort and security from trusted caregivers when a situation feels stressful, threatening or ambiguous. When “out of sight” is no longer “out of mind,” as is the case with object permanence, separation from preferred and familiar caregivers is bound to create some anxiety.
Vimla, mother of 13-month old Sri, wishes he did not pull on her heartstrings so much when she drops him off at daycare. She feels guilty and misses him too, and has noticed that Sri clings to her over the weekends. He sometimes protests loudly when she leaves the room, even if he is in the good hands of his father or grandmother, who lives with them. Should Vimla be worried about Sri’s behavior?
Separation anxiety is a normal part of development, and anxiety in moderation can actually help children improve and work on ways to cope with stressful situations³. At the same time, cultural goals and values play an important role in the expectations that are built around attachment relationships, and accordingly, separations.
In cultures where interdependence and care within the home and by family members is emphasized, as is often the case in many South Asian families, daycare and preschool goodbyes may be especially challenging in the beginning. At the same time, if infants are used to seeing and being cared for by multiple caregivers, which is likely in some joint or extended families, they may warm up to a new setting a little faster than other infants.
Vimla may also experience maternal separation anxiety when leaving Sri in the care of others, which is stressful for many parents. Research indicates that mothers who are less culturally similar to the mainstream or dominant culture in which they live might feel more stressed because of greater discrepancies between home and school environments.4
Pressures to ‘do it all’ – be an attuned, responsive mother, efficient and successful professional, and dedicated, loving wife – can also add to maternal separation anxiety for South Asian mothers. Here are some tips to help you and your child make it through these separations – whether she is just old enough to appreciate peek-a-boo, or if she is ready to play hide-and-seek:
• Practice. If possible, take your child to the new setting or person he will be spending more time with before it becomes a regular experience. Infants rely on social referencing at this time to know how to make emotional sense of a situation – the messages and assurance you provide will help him feel safer and comfortable with the transition.
• Communicate to daycare professionals and other caregivers about any cultural differences you might notice between home and daycare/school, and suggest ways for them to approach and understand your child as she acclimates.
• Develop a ritual for drop-offs. Children benefit greatly from predictability and consistency and the song/activity that you incorporate in your goodbye ritual will stay with them throughout the day.
• Validate. Saying goodbye is hard! Let your child know you understand her feelings and don’t be afraid to share your own. Even if separations are teary, infants who feel their caregivers are responsive and empathic receive a powerful message that they are worthy of being loved, understood, and taken care of – emotional building blocks that will foster healthy relationships for the years to come.
Dhara Thakar Meghani realizes that parents have multiple balls to keep in the air at a time – stay tuned as Borrowed Knowledge takes a closer look at mindful parenting approaches that can make separations smoother, reunions more enriching, and enhance your relationship potential with your child and loved ones.
¹Lieberman, A. F. (1995). Emotional life of the toddler. SimonandSchuster.com.
²Emde, R. N. (1989). The infant’s relationship experience: Developmental and affective aspects. Relationship disturbances in early childhood: A developmental approach, 33-51.
³Tronick, E. Z., & Gianino, A. (1986). Interactive mismatch and repair: Challenges to the coping infant. Zero to Three.
4Blunk, E. M., Russell, E. M., & Williams, S. W. (2008). Pilot study of Hispanic mothers and maternal separation anxiety. Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal, 36(6), 727-736.