Parents face their own form of separation anxiety when they leave their children in someone else's care, particularly if the reason is a childless vacation.
In the case of parents, according to an article in the current issue of Harper's Bazaar, that anxiety takes the form of guilt, even though the desire to spend time with contemporaries may be healthy for them and their children.
"I think it is as important for the parents to be able to separate from the child as it is for the child to learn to separate from the parents," said child psychologist Sidney Reiter of Scarsdale, N.Y.
Reiter said parents feel unnecessarily guilty because they don't want to be with their children all the time.
Separations Harder for Infants
"Life is a series of separations," he said, "and the earlier we learn to cope with them the better we will be able to do so."
While many parents believe infancy is the least traumatic time to leave their children for a spell, experts disagree.
"In many ways it is harder for infants, since they don't have the intellectual ability to understand the absence, although they do sense it, particularly the absence of the mother. And that can be frightening to them," said John Burgess, a Westchester, N.Y., child psychiatrist.
It eases matters if the child already has some experience with separation and being left in the care of others.
"The child who is able to form positive relationships with a care giver other than his parents will tend to be less distressed by a parent's absence," Reiter said.
If going away on vacation, business or for other reasons, it is essential to leave your child in the care of someone familiar, and Reiter indicated the child would feel more comfortable at home rather than staying with a friend or relative.
Part of the problem is that young children have no clear concept of time. Reiter recommended marking a large calendar with "Xs" for the day you leave and the day you return. Each day, the child crosses off another box.
"The more concrete you can make your return," he said, "the more reassured the child will be."
Some parents fear "reaching out" by telephone will upset the child, but Burgess said:
Promises Must Be Kept
"In my view, it's better to call. Children have difficulty realizing that people exist when they're not present, younger children in particular. And older ones may start to have fantasies about accidents or death. Existence is not as firm a notion as it is with an adolescent. You have to keep reinforcing."
Reiter warned that you must keep your promises. If you say you are going to call at a certain time, you must do so.
"If the child sees he can't trust you to call," he said, "how can he trust you to return?"
It is normal for parents to worry and they frequently experience more pain in separation than the child.
"The parents who tend to be upset are the ones who are sensitive and caring, who have the child's best interests in mind," Reiter said. "But they must learn to realize that separation in the proper dosage and the proper manner is healthy for everyone."