Activities · For Parents · Me

Separation Anxiety: A Behavioural Strategy

Something amazing happened in my house this morning, and I can’t stop talking about it. It’s very personal, but it’s also connected to Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) in an important way.
I am a mother of two little sons, and since I’ve started working more irregular hours, their separation anxiety has been going through the roof. Whenever I had an unavoidable appointment outside the house, they would weep, beg and wail. My own reaction started with calm and reassuring and gradual slid to despair, confusion and frustration. It was impossible to distract or offer rewards, because their emotional reactions were so intense, even for the four-year-old. Sometimes I could still hear them sobbing as I stood outside the house.
I tried to make the departures short, and I never allowed the crying to stop me from going out the door, but this kind of “extinction” (as behaviour analysts would call it) was not effective. In fact, the crying was getting worse, and I started to refuse when my friends asked me to meet, just to avoid it. You can probably imagine how guilty and anxious I felt.
The answer came to me last night as I was discussing the question of “attachment” with a client. We were looking for ways to make her own separation routine easier. I envisioned the attachment between mother and son as elastic, and I wondered if we could try an activity with an actual elastic band.
band-2086_1920This morning I was dreading the inevitable scream-fest, and decided to try it myself. I found an old exercise band, and showed it to my children. I invited them to pull it, and told them “We are connected, just like this. Sometimes we get farther apart, but I will never let go.” They laughed and took turns pulling on the band and watching me bounce back to them. I let them try it as many times as they wanted, and the slapstick maintained their interest for dozens of turns. I started to add a bit of pretend play, and used everyday scenarios as I pulled on the elastic and bounced back.
“Ok, I’m going grocery shopping. I’ll be just over there… woah, I’d better get back to the kids… boing!” “Ok, time for daycare, see you later! Hey, I’m coming to pick you up again!” Eventually, I asked them to play their part, and practice saying “Bye mummy! Have a good time! Miss you!” They helped me make up scenarios and decided where they would go, and where they would like me to go.
We practiced and practiced, and each time, the boys had a chance to get instantly rewarded for appropriately saying goodbye. In behavioural terms, you would call this process shaping, because although the children couldn’t manage a real goodbye, we practiced a much easier version, and gradually made it more and more like the real thing.
After about 15 minutes of play, I decided they were ready for the next step. boy-1867332_1920I talked about going to work in hypothetical terms, and explained how I would always love them and stay connected to them. They seemed calm, so I gave them some options of very special activities to enjoy while I was gone.
I was surprised, overjoyed, and so relieved when I was able to put on my jacket, and pack up my bags without the usual panic and misery. I moved very slowly, and gave lots of hugs and kisses when asked. I praised them for handling it so well, and the older child made sure to remind me to be very careful in the snow. I asked them to hold on to the elastic in their hearts, but I think they took me literally, because when I came back, my older child assured me, “I dropped the elastic but I still have love for you.”
My heart is so full today. Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is so much more than the trial-by-trial, drill-based practice that some people make it out to be. It’s all about growing, and teaching the most important skills, in a well-planned and motivating way.


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