Leaving the kids at home while you travel? How to handle the anxiety


When the opportunity to see The Big Apple came knocking, I jumped for joy and started a mental to-pack-list.

It’s taken me roughly 30 years to tick this one off my bucket list and after being alive for just 16-months, Alexander would have his passpassport stamped with the same.

Imagine the pictures we’d take at the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge, the strolls in Central Park, and endless kilometers of exploring (by foot) with the world’s most inquisitive toddler.

Uhm, hold on, not so much! Let me just say that tons of parents have managed (and loved) it, but the thought of this didn’t quite excite me, so I called in the big guns aka the grandparents, to do what they do best.

Because if I was going to travel without him, the only sitters qualified enough for the job would be the folk that kept me alive.

It wasn’t too long after I celebrated their positive response, that I found a mild form of mild panic setting in…

What if Alex chokes on the lollipop sweets that my dad always tries giving him? I constantly have to police these things.

Then there’s my mom that holds him up to mix the food when she’s cooking... Surely she should know that he can burn? Oh, and Cozy (our family dog) might just get so jealous that he’s no longer the cente of attention, that he could uhm… hurt or bite him?!

Also see: Struggling with an anxious child? Here's help

Separation anxiety


When I saw this meme on the Mommy Madness blog on Facebook, I realised that separation anxiety is not just what toddlers experience when their parents leave them, it is also the panic that parents feel when they aren’t with their children.

So I called up a friend, who is also a psychologist, and she helped put things in perspective for me. I think every parent that has to leave their kids behind when they travel would benefit from it…

First off, she reassured me that what I was experiencing is normal. “Both parents and children may experience anxiety when separated from each other for periods longer than usual. This anxiety may show itself as feelings of fear or behaviour to combat that fear – and does not qualify as the psychological disorder of separation anxiety”, said Marleen Germishuys, a Cape Town based clinical psychologist whose interests include child and family therapy, as well as anxiety and depression.

What a relief to know that still even after panicking about my child staying with my own parents (let’s hope they never read this), I was still considered normal. But what does that mean for managing the fear – for both myself and Alexander?

Germishuys answers, offering these practical tips…

1. Leave your child in the care of someone they are familiar with - and in a familiar environment

Separation anxiety is much less intense for little ones when they’re left with a familiar person, e.g. grandmother or favourite aunt. Young children also tend to show more intense reactions when left in an unfamiliar environment, so ask gran or aunt to stay at baby’s home while caring for him or her.

2. Leave your child’s favourite toys or items to remind them of you

Babies usually experience separation anxiety once they have developed a sense of object constancy.

Providing a transitional object – especially one that reminds the child to you – like a favourite blanket or toy, will assure them that you have not disappeared and will be back.

3. Bring your child a gift!

There’s no getting out of this one as the expert herself advises that parents bring back a small souvenir for their little ones. This may encourage a positive feeling around parent-travel as your child may begin to look forward to surprise-gifts associated with your work travels.

Tips for caregivers who look after children while parents are away: 

1. Let the child know that he or she can contact mom or dad whenever they need to. This will lessen the little one’s anxiety. It is also a good idea to let him/her call or video call mom/dad to say goodnight before going to bed.

2. Distract the little one by preparing his or her favourite meals or doing enjoyable excursions such as going to the aquarium.

3. Normalise the little one’s emotions when he or she expresses that he misses the parent or feels afraid. This can be done by telling the child that it is understandable that he/she misses the parent and that they probably miss him/her too. Reassure them by telling them that the parent will be back as soon as they can be.  For an older child, you can also say that his friends would probably miss their parents too if they were to be away etc.  It is important for the little one to know that it is okay to feel afraid or to miss someone when they are away.

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