Contributed by caring mother and author, Carol Smock.
I remember a day brilliant with sun, light glinting off the front of the car as we drove along the highway. Three-year-old Michelle and her baby sister occupied car seats in the back. It was a great day for moving on, leaving Air Force life behind. Jim, still in uniform said, “I think I’ll grow a mustache.”
From the back seat a small, trembling voice answered him, “I don’t want you to change.”
Michelle was coping with a new sibling, a move and a recent hospitalization for meningitis. She had been an easy child, independent and confident. That was about to change. We went from an apartment in close-packed military housing to a three-and-a-half acre property in the suburbs. The house and the area around it must have felt awfully big and empty. The baby demanded a lot of attention. Crumpet, our ill-tempered cat, ran out one day when the door opened and was never seen again. Suddenly, all of these changes were just too much to handle.
I could not leave the room even for a few minutes without having my normally independent child end up screaming in terror. I could not go to the basement to wash clothes or to the garden to fetch some beans for supper. I could not go to the bathroom without a small shadow following behind. Michelle would scream even if I had clearly told her where I would be and that I would be right back.
This was so unlike my usually sunny daughter that I was a little shaken up myself. How could I help her regain her confidence when she ended up shattered every time I went out of her sight? Her lovey blanket and comfort toys did nothing to reassure her. Clearly, she was a terribly frightened child.
I found my answer in the little album of photographs we had given her when her father was deployed. She carried it everywhere and talked about the pictures of her and Daddy, the dog and Daddy, Mommy and Daddy, Daddy in his uniform and Daddy in shirt sleeves. Would a similar tool help her now?
A packet of unlined index cards and a marker offered the glimmer of a solution. I drew pictures to symbolize the places where I needed to work. Every room in the house got a particular symbol. I am no artist, so the drawings were embarrassingly crude. This didn’t matter to Michelle.
We began with a game. Michelle would hand me a card representing a nearby room. She would go there, and I would come and find her. Then I would take a card and let her find me. Slowly, we moved along to rooms that were on the other end of the house, to the basement, and then to the garage and the garden. We played the hiding game until Michelle could allow me to go into another room and not dissolve into a puddle of panic.
With picture cards at the ready, I was soon able to do my chores without causing pandemonium in the house. Michelle would play or “read” in her room while I accomplished what I needed to do. Later on, we used the same technique when we began leaving the kids with a babysitter or their grandparents. I would present Michelle with a picture of the place we were going and tell her when we would return. She would refer to the card on occasion while we were out, but soon began to leave the picture on a shelf or a table while she went about her own business. Her curiosity and independent spirit reasserted themselves.
Picture cards worked well to help my child deal with separation anxiety brought on by too many changes too fast. They are one tool that can be used to help a child adjust to the fact that Mom and Dad can’t always be there. Every child is different and will respond to different techniques. The important thing is to keep working with the child until that particular tool is found and separation anxiety is left behind with the pacifiers and bottles of infancy.