Understanding Separation Anxiety
I love the fact that separation anxiety is normal and on the whole is not normally a problem. However, it is important to understand what is happening in the dance between you and your baby when this developmental stage begins and why at times this dance feels difficult.
Sigmund Freud said that “the human infant comes into the world not quite finished”. This means that at birth your baby’s brain is undeveloped and not fully wired up. However, your baby’s rage, fear and separation distress systems are wired and ready to go. These systems are in operation as a survival mechanism designed to keep you close and your baby safe.
So what is happening in your baby’s brain when her alarm system strikes?
The underdeveloped brain leaves your baby sensitive and vulnerable to stress. In her new and strange world a slamming door can trigger her fear system. Her rage system may be triggered by such things as being undressed and her separation system by you leaving the room. When these alarms are triggered in the lower brain your baby is being flooded by chemicals, one of which is cortisol. This is normal! However, what your baby needs help with is to lower the level of cortisol and bring her back into balance. If this doesn’t happen then your baby can be left feeling overwhelmed, fearful and panicky.
Your baby’s brain needs you!
She needs your compassion, soothing and physical comforting to help her stem the flood of cortisol in her system. Once this has happened she will calm down. If this soothing happens fairly consistently then her brain will start to develop important pathways and connections that will allow her in time to calm her own alarmed state. You are literally helping your baby’s brain to develop!
So in the first few months of life together, if all has been going well in this respect, your baby will develop trust in her attachment and you will start to settle into a period of relative calm. You are the one that can calm her and the one that has always been around to keep her safe. You have helped build your baby’s awareness of her environment. Up until now you and significant others have been her entire world.
The calm before the storm and ‘separation anxiety’
What you have built between you feels strong. However, his new awareness and trust can mean that he will feel the acute distress of when you are not around. This is normal and is called ‘separation anxiety’. This usually occurs between the ages of six to eight months and can be a sign of the healthy bonding and attachment that has been co-created between you and your baby. As you stay emotionally responsive and accept this as a natural stage of development things will progress and in time settle down. It is not your absence as you start to separate that can be the problem but the quality of your presence!
So when does this ‘normal’ stage of development become a problem?
As your baby’s anxiety rises one or more of the three alarm systems in your own brain can be triggered producing a flood of stress chemicals. These then block the release of your positive arousal chemicals leaving you and your baby feeding off each others anxiety. If this becomes the norm than it is important that you seek help or support with your own emotional regulation. As you come back into balance so will your baby. This is wonderful news!
Some important facts
- Clinginess is your baby letting you know that he doesn’t feel safe. Take his pain seriously.
- The same parts of the brain are activated whether it is a physical or emotional pain such as separation distress. Both need comfort.
- Even children at age eight can be hypersensitive to separation. Be guided by your child’s need rather than comparing them with what other children are doing.
- An unregulated stress response left unchecked can lead to problems in later life such as; depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessions, eating disorders, or avoidance behavior. This need not be the case! Always seek help.
So most importantly….
- Remember that ‘separation anxiety’ is normal and will pass if all is going well.
- If things are not going so well it may help to reflect on your own stress response. Are you experiencing any symptoms that may indicate that you need help with emotional regulation?
- You the parent are the most important person here. Don’t wait until things reach a crisis point. Get help if needed. Your baby/child will survive and thrive as you take care of yourself.
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