Dear Father Hood: what’s the deal with separation anxiety?
It’s taken me a ridiculous length of time to answer this question. Partly, because I’ve been busy with other work (ooh, check me out). And partly, because it’s hard to sit down and write 750+ words when you have an 11-month-old clinging onto your leg for dear life. That’s right, folks. My little one is going through a full-blown separation anxiety crisis, and the deal is… it is as awful as you would imagine.
Perhaps the worst thing about his seismic change of character is that it has come from nowhere. One minute he was happily stomping around on his own, interacting with other children. The next he was bursting into tears the moment his feet hit the ground or his mum ventured anywhere near the front door. This gave my wife and I no time to prepare a battle plan, and this meant we spent most of the first day carrying him around, most of the first night scanning the internet for tips and most of the second day drinking wine. Only joking. We kept bothering the internet and also asked his childminder for her expert opinion.
So what have we discovered? Well, as ever, NHS Choices provided a comforting virtual arm round our shoulders, explaining that separation anxiety is a completely normal stage in every child’s development, and assuring us that we weren’t actually the worst parents since time began. It also offered some practical advice about things we could do to ease the pain. In no particular order these were: practice short separations from your baby to begin with; talk about what you’ll do together later; make saying goodbye a positive time; and leave something comforting with the baby.
I was lying. I did put those advice nuggets in a particular order. And I did it because it allows me to smugly inform you that my wife and I had already agreed to do the first three. I know. Parents of the Year or what? Boy did we high five, hug, dance and chant ‘N-H-S! N-H-S! N-H-S!’ when we discovered our nurturing excellence. This euphoria lasted approximately two minutes. Then we remembered a) that the curtains were open and b) that despite this parental brilliance our little star still had separation anxiety. All of which led us to advice nugget four – a.k.a. The Comforter.
Previously, we’d fought against the idea of introducing a go-to blankie, muzzy or toy. This fight had a little to do with my irrational fear of turning him into Linus from Charlie Brown and a lot to do with my wife’s rational concern that we would lose said comforter at a critical time causing Mount Baby to erupt in a cataclysmic fury. Don’t get me wrong. The latter is still a major worry, but with the internet and his childminder telling us a comforter was a good idea and our son acting like he was going to be swallowed up by a black hole every time we put him down, who were we to argue? Thus in a short, but elaborate ceremony involving dimmed lights and his own theme tune ‘Dino’ the cuddly dinosaur was born.
It would be a gross exaggeration to claim the pair bonded right away. In truth, ‘D.I.N.O. Dino’ (sung to the tune of D.I.S.C.O) spent most of his first few days being flung out of the cot or abandoned in the middle of the kitchen. If Dino had been alive, he would have received a lot of medical attention and developed a fairly significant complex. But he’s a cuddly toy, so we just keep dusting him down and sending him back to the front line. And do you know what? While this stuffed creature has not completely cured our son’s separation anxiety, it is beginning to work. Slowly but surely, his importance has grown to a level where the bubster appears to view him as a soothing link between his home life and the outside world.
Obviously, this type of dependency has downsides that could return to bite us in the butt at some point in the future, but if I have discovered anything over the last 11 months, it’s that parenting is a series of battles that you need to face one-by-one. This week’s struggle involves separation anxiety and right now a fluffy dinosaur is playing a key part in easing the pain. So please join me in raising a toast to my son’s new best friend, Dino. He may be a little battered and bruised. He may not be able to speak. And he may cause all sorts of problems in the future. But right now he is stopping my son from throwing a tantrum every time I go to the toilet. And given the amount of leg crossing I had to do last week this is most definitely a cause for celebration.