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"I'm not going to suddenly leave you"

Why this is an important message for our kids.

By Nicki Dawson

I was recently washing my hands in an airport bathroom when I witnessed a brief moment between couplefd and an adult. It was an ordinary moment. The kind of moment that h ppens every day.

“If you don’t come now, mom and dad are going to leave on the airplane without us!”, the adult offered. At this, the young girl got up and followed the adult out the bathroom.

It had worked. The adult needed the child to get on the plane, and a threat of separation had done the trick.

We know well that threats of separation seem to work wonders on getting children to co-operate. But why is this? And what are the potentially negative consequences of these short-term wins?

Attachment research provides us with some answers. As social, relational beings, initially completely dependent on adult caregivers for survival, maintaining proximity to our caregivers and attachment figures is a central driver of human behaviour. Infants are biologically wired from birth to experience extreme distress if separated from their caregivers. Thus, separations trigger what we call “attachment behaviours”, such as crying, in an attempt to bring about a reunion. Because of this strong innate drive, even in moments of distress, children will most often choose proximity. As much as the crying is in many ways an “automatic” response, so too is following a caregiver who is moving off.

Attachment research also highlights some unintended negative consequences that may result from using threats of separation to help manage tantrums or increase compliance. And they may be the very things that parents are seeking to prevent.

Research shows that using threats of separation can increase clinginess, anxiety and the frequency and intensity of tantrums. Without the assurance that they will definitely, never be left; not at a new school or after doing something wrong; “attachment behaviours” such as crying and clinging, meant to bring about proximity, are turned up to “maximum”. This is how the brain is wired to work. This means that future attempts to get co-operation (especially when it requires a separation) may be much more difficult.

So what can we do when we are in a rush and we need to get our child to co-operate? Here are a couple of quick tips:

1. Anticipate and prepare: If you are going to be in a situation in which you suspect your child may struggle to co-operate, try to prepare them… “Our plane is going soon. I’m going to take you to the bathroom, but we won’t be able to play with the water like we normally do, because we are in a hurry”. Or “We are flying on a plane today. We will have lots of things to do and will see lots of new people. I will keep you close, so you will be safe. I need you to hold my hand and come with me.”

2. Acknowledge and Okay the feeling: “You are very sad that we can’t play with the water now and we have to go. It is sad we have to hurry.” Or “You are very scared of all the strange people in masks, but I will keep you safe”.

3. Hold the boundary: “Time to say bye-bye bathroom. We will play with water again another time.” Or “I’m going to pick you up now to take you to the plane, because it’s important we stay together and I have to go”.

4. Offer some control with possible alternatives: “We are going to the plane now. We can play with Mr. Teddy on the plane or watch some TV. What do you choose?”

If you'd like some parenting support, Ububele offers parenting courses and individual family support. To find out more about our what parenting courses we are currently running you can contact Thola at or to book a session with a psychologist you can contact our Therapy and Assessment Clinic at

Nicki Dawson is a psychologist who specializes in parent-infant psychotherapy. She is currently Ububele's Parent-Infant Programme Manager, which includes our Home Visiting, Baby Mat and NBO services. She is also currently completing her PhD, in the area of attachment research.

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