ACTively coping with connection seeking behaviours, meltdowns and separation anxiety in the “new normal”

I’ve been reflecting this week on what it’s like through a child’s eyes to come out of lockdown and into a new world of shifting rules and expectations, change and uncertainty. I’ve also been thinking about how this affects both parent and child attachment styles and what all this means for big emotions, meltdowns (both parent and child) and crucially, how do we respond to this emotional cocktail? Now to unpack more about what I mean ..

The “new normal” through a childs eyes

My 3 year old daughter had until recently gone for over three months without playing with any children other than her baby brother. She’s had both her parents at home with her 24/7. She’s been expected to adjust to daddy working from home for the rest of the year. She’s had to learn that when daddy is ‘in the zone’ he is not open to use as a climbing frame. She’s had to adjust to a whole new home schooling routine as she now hasn’t been in nursery for a year, since she stopped for my maternity leave. For us, there have been highlights, low lights, a lot of love and laughter. We’ve enjoyed the extra bonding time as a family of four while I’ve been on maternity leave, and it’s been especially good for my husband bonding with my baby son. From my perspective this has gone almost too well, since I am no longer the unchallenged favourite caregiver. Rather, he’s a daddy’s boy – quite a feat for a breast-fed baby. The challenges though are that both my children have missed socialising and I’m anticipating that both will struggle with separation anxiety when they will soon be faced with the prospect of starting nursery when I return to work.

Attachment Theory and Covid-19

We all have our own usual attachment style as adults for how we relate to others. For the lucky 40 % we are mainly secure and this style is linked to better outcomes in education, employment and relationships. For about half of us we have a mainly insecure style. We might feel generally anxious in our relationships, clinging and hanging on tight, fearing abandonment. Or, we might feel avoidant and dismissive, preferring to keep others at arms length literally and emotionally. The remainder might have a disorganised style with no clear sense of ourselves or our needs in relationships, struggling to get our needs met, reacting and drifting from moment to moment.

Our children will also develop their own attachment style from birth. If we are secure ourselves, we may be able to respond in a consistently warm and attuned way to our babies, teaching them that we can be trusted to meet their needs for warmth, food and shelter and that the world is a safe place where most people are basically good. If we are insecure ourselves, it will be a lot harder for us to do this for our babies without support.

It’s also possible for our attachment system to become more insecure under stress. Even those of us who are normally secure may find ourselves either more clingy or more dismissive of people close to us under stress. When we consider that the pandemic is generally agreed to have been stressful for parents, that probably also means there are more parents with temporarily less secure attachment styles than usual. Additionally, for some families – like mine – lockdown has been a sort of cosy albeit anti-social cocoon and the challenges of resuming nursery, school and going out of the house to work will bring attachment challenges like separation anxiety – particularly for babies like my son who are unpracticed at the art of being cared for by anyone other than mummy or daddy. And if our own attachment styles are more anxious or avoidant than usual, what does that mean for our children’s? Yep, they’re likely going to be more anxious or avoidant too. And how might we expect to see that in their behaviour? Young children often show us they are experiencing big emotions through their behaviour – so we see more tantrums and meltdowns. We might also notice ourselves finding them more irritating or annoying than usual. They may do more boundary pushing behaviours to push our buttons to reel us back into a response to them in a sort of attachment dance.

So, how can we helpfully respond?

It helps if you can practice noticing your own feelings and thoughts and maintaining your awareness of how you’re responding to your child. For example, my daughter will sometimes say ‘I just like to get dressed really slowly’ because she is aware I’ve said I feel frustrated if this means I need to chase her brother round her bedroom while he tries to eat her books for half an hour before I can get a glass of water first thing in the morning. She says it to engage me emotionally to elicit parenting – to pull me into doing something about it. She wants to feel cared for, held in mind and attuned to, and my frustration is a price worth paying to her. When I hold in mind that she needs to feel attuned to, it’s easier for me to respond with patience and kindness to all of us – I’ve learned to take that glass of water in with me and that if I can get her dressed 1:1 she goes much faster.

It also helps if you can notice when you need support to contain and regulate your own feelings. This might mean talking to your partner or friend, going for a run, painting, baking or gardening. It might mean carving out fifteen minutes to have a coffee on your own in the morning before the children get up or leaving them with someone else for an evening to clear your head. What’s really important is to own your feelings and needs and accept offers of help to look after those needs if you can. It’s really tricky to contain our kids unless we are contained ourselves first.

Compassion and kindness for both ourselves and others are powerful tools. If we can be compassionate with ourselves it will be a great example for our children to follow, and if we can empathize with the need for love under the tantrum it’s easier to respond with kindness and warmth.

Practical tips to de-escalate a meltdown

Cuddles – probably this is the de-escalation equivalent of “have you tried putting it off and on again yet?” when your IT equipment at work won’t work and you need to phone the helpdesk. I would probably ask “Do you need a hug?” and I find that 9 times out of 10 the answer will be “yes!”, and if I’ve offered early enough, the meltdown would be averted.

Naming emotions – I started doing this when my daughter was a baby, although the process has got more interactive as she’s got older. For example “I can see you’re angry your brother took the toy, but it’s not OK to whack him over the head with it.” or “I know you’re feeling sad that we need to leave the play park now, I think it’s because you’ve missed it for the last 3 months and you’ve had so much fun today. Sad feelings are there to help us notice what we love. We can come back soon”. If you can name your child’s emotions, they will feel heard, understood and validated. They will also learn to name their own with practice, and say “I’m angry” before hitting out, and learn to use safe ways to release big feelings without getting themselves in trouble. I also name my own feelings to model emotional awareness and that I can own and contain my own emotions. For example I explained I was very sad when our pet guinea pig died, which gave us an opportunity to talk about death and loss.

Co-regulation of big emotions – Most of us do this naturally with babies – we hold a crying baby close to our chest so they can hear our heart beating and rock, walk or bounce with them, gradually slowing down as they believe we can keep them safe. You can do a similar process with an older child. Start by meeting your now-older child where they’re at. If they’re angry or upset, you could go for a run and shout in the garden together, jump on a trampoline or do star jumps. You might aim to gradually slow your movements, your talking speed and voice volume and breathing down to model calming down and to encourage them to do the same.

Know when to stop talking – language understanding reduces for young children when they are upset as does any logic or reasoning ability they might have in fledgling capacity. It’s unlikely negotiating, arguing, pleading or yelling will work so it’ll probably be a better use of your energy to model taking a few deep breaths and perhaps some gentle stretches. If you can model staying calm but present while they show big feelings, they will learn you can tolerate and contain their feelings – and hopefully the meltdown will then stop more quickly.

Distraction – what are you going on to do next or later on that they like? what colours, numbers or shapes are around you that they might find interesting for a second? It only needs to be interesting enough to break the momentum for a moment.

Grounding techniques and dropping anchor – for us, this means watering the plants together in the garden with a watering can. For someone else, it might be walking or cycling round the block. A classic is looking for and naming what you can see, hear, touch, taste and smell around you.

Defuse from unhelpful thoughts that trap you – for example, my daughter recently had a fairly loud protest in our front garden about not wanting to come into the house after going for a walk on the grounds that the house was too hot and she was hungry. I noticed that most of my neighbours were also out in their front gardens and decided to defuse from the thought that they may be watching and evaluating my parenting. I then decided on the reframe that this was my opportunity to demonstrate practicing what I preach, and reminded myself they had likely all worn similar shoes to me at some point, if not walked in my shoes exactly.

Quick functional analysis – in other words, play detective. Are they hungry, in pain, thirsty, ill or tired? Are they in need of more or less stimulation? Do they have unmet needs for intellectual stimulation, company or time outdoors to play? How are you feeling – could they be picking up on you feeling anxious or cranky? Are they worried, scared or angry about anything obvious? Could this be about their attachment needs? Would a hug help?

Practical tips for combating separation anxiety

Recognise and make room for your own feelings – your own attachment responses will be involved as well as your child’s. Do you have any worries about the caregiver you plan on leaving your child with? Are there any topics or questions you want to check out with them before you leave your child there? What will you do after you drop your child off? Can you make space in your plan to do something self-compassionate?

Allow for the possibility that it may be trickier for a baby to settle into a nursery or childminder after lockdown than it would normally, and that normally it still wouldn’t be easy. Discuss whether a longer, gentler and/or more flexible process than normal might be helpful with your childcare provider. Allow that both yourself and your child will experience anxiety about the process. Try to let your feelings and theirs be there, accepting that they will come and go. Most babies will settle into childcare in a few weeks, and it tends to get easier as you go on – the first couple of times will probably be the roughest. If you can acknowledge both of your feelings and your own thoughts, it will become more do-able to problem solve what you need to do to help both of you through this.

Show your child that you are comfortable with the care provider you have chosen to leave them with and confident it will be OK. It may be helpful to put a brave face on for your child’s benefit, smile and say goodbye and – if they can understand – tell them when you will be back so they know you’ve gone and will return for them.

Build up gradually – for example, with a baby who has no experience of being cared for by anyone else it may be helpful to introduce short experiences of being left with a family member or friend (or more than one family member or friend), prior to leaving them at a nursery. It will likely be helpful to start with something like half an hour while you go for a walk and build up to a couple of hours if you can. It may also help to read books about starting nursery with a child old enough to understand. If you can, go for visits to the nursery or childminder with the child before they actually start attending. Gradually build up the visits so your child’s confidence grows without overwhelming them with anxiety. If your child seems particularly distressed at any point, offer empathy to both the child and the care provider if you can, and try to problem solve together – it might be helpful to repeat a step before moving on to the next step on your plan, or to consider a smaller step onwards than the one you had planned.

Routines are often important for babies and young children. It might help to talk through with your care provider what your child’s current routines are for eating, sleep and play and to consider how similar or different these are from what the care provider’s routines would be like. Is it possible for the care provider to include your routines in your child’s day? If not, are there steps you can do at home to prepare them for the care provider’s routines? For example, where does your baby sleep at home, and where will they sleep at nursery? My son has been used to sleeping in a baby carrier, a buggy and a bed depending on what fits in, but I’ve been trying to include more naps in bed to increase his chance of sleeping easily in the toddler bunk beds his nursery-to-be offer. For a baby, it may also be helpful to consider their milk feeding routine and weaning progress and how the nursery or childminder could help support those.

Leave your child with a comfort object like a pacifier or comfort blanket if they have one. When my daughter first started nursery she took a cardigan with her that smelled like me, and she slept with it in her buggy until she was 2.

When your child is around, speak positively about the care provider. If you have concerns about how it’s going or need to vent, try to talk to other adults about it when your child is out of earshot – it’s amazing how much their little ears can pick up and store to fret over later. It is also likely be helpful to talk directly with the care provider about any concerns or teething problems, as if you can work as a team your child will benefit.

A quote to leave you with by Basel Van Der Kolk – “The parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind”.


Published by Mummy ACT

Qualified Clinical Psychologist blogging about pregnancy, miscarriage and parenting in the early years using tools from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Compassion Focussed Therapy during a pandemic

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