Separation & anxiety

Every parent has experienced the phenomenon of separation anxiety in children. It is a normal behaviour that is part of child’s development, seen mostly in babies and toddlers. It can most often be seen in babies from 8 months to about 2 years old. It is often triggered with a new care situation, a new sibling or moving to a new place. For children it is normal to feel this way, to cry and be distressed to the new changes as they are separated from who they trust.

For a child who is younger than 8 months it is easier to adapt to new caregivers. It is about 8 months to 1 year that a child is more aware of the surroundings, recognises faces and exhibits stranger anxiety. It is also about 8 months that a child only begins to understand the concept of object permanence. This is when babies are not able to see an object in front of them that they think it has disappeared or is completely gone and could not just be somewhere else. It is therefore important to allow the child to understand this concept and to feel secure about not being let alone. At this stage children also begin to understand the input and control they have in their environment.

In the Montessori classrooms, activities such as drop boxes with drawers in which a child may drop a ball and observe as it disappears from sight and can be found once more hidden in a drawer, allow this concept to be understood. While this is a normal phenomenon, it is a concern since it can also be unsettling for parents by triggering feelings of guilt and confusion. As the child takes on this new role of awareness and impact to the surroundings, the child slowly begins to experiment with the adult and daily routine of the adults.

“Some children are of such retiring nature that their psychic energies are too weak to resist the influence of the adult. Instead they attach themselves to an older person who tends to substitute his own activity for theirs and they thus become extremely dependent upon him. Their lack of vital energy, although they are not aware of it themselves make them prone to tears. They complain about everything; and since they have the air of one who is suffering, they are thought to be sensitive and affectionate. They are always bored, though they do not realise it, and they have recourse to others, that is, to adults, because they cannot themselves escape the boredom that oppresses them. They cling to another as if their very life depended upon it. They ask adult for help. They want to play with them, to tell them stories, to sing to them and never leave them. An adult becomes a slave to such children. Even though child and adult have a deep understanding and affection for one another, they are ensnared in the same net.”

If separation anxiety is properly dealt with, it helps pave the way for the acceptance of attachments and separations as a natural process. Based on attachment theory by John Bowlby, attachment is the sense of being loved and being part of the world. Montessori environments are prepared to ensure that the child feels secure and belonging. When a child feels secure, they are then not focused on their internal emotional needs, and turns their attention to the external world to explore and work. It is then through this work and exploration that a child learns and creates themselves.