Separation Anxiety - A story about how we are more the same than different.

I have never been more grateful for my understanding of behaviour, what motivates us and what situations can be traumatic, than since becoming a mother. It doesn’t matter that my training has been focussed on equine behaviour. Our brains all work the same way at a fundamental level. More and more I am discovering how similar we are to the horses we love.

A big project we have been working on recently, is helping our son to be happy and confident when separated from me. The end date of my official maternity leave is looming, so we have been preparing for the transition to child care with increasing separation from me, at home, whilst my partner or my mum stay with him and I spend time with online students, with the horses or doing farm projects. So far, so good. He happily bounces off to play after I wave good bye and remains confident in my absence.

The key to our success has been in making the changes gradually. I am really conscious of this, because I want to avoid triggering separation anxiety, which can happen if a separation is abrupt, complete and distressing.

If you have been around horses for a while, you are probably familiar with at least one horse who can’t be separated from their companions without a lot of noise, movement, pooping and inability to focus on anything but getting back to those companions. Mild cases of separation anxiety may present as a horse being unable to eat or drink during the separation, whilst in extreme cases, horses may injure themselves trying to get through fences, or jump out of stables to get to one another. It can also be dangerous for us, especially if we are leading or riding the distressed horse.

Obviously, every horse is different and some horses are more likely to develop separation anxiety than others, but what often causes the development of separation anxiety is the abrupt, complete and distressing separation of a closely bonded pair. Weaning is a common situation where this can occur. In particular, early weaning where the foal is suddenly and permanently separated from its dam, can lay the foundation for separation anxiety in future. This is because:

  • For a social, prey species being with your herd and bonded companion means being safe, because there is someone else to watch out for predators and keep watch when you are sleeping.

  • This is especially true for a young foal, who relies on the mare for food, comfort and protection, as well as safety and companionship. In a free-living situation, foals aren’t weaned until about a year old, when the new foal arrives, so biologically they are wired to be closely bonded with their dam until then.

  • The sudden separation creates a lot of fear and anxiety for the horse. Even if they appear to calm down after a while.

  • Later, when the horse is separated from another bonded companion, the old memory and fear are triggered and the horse panics.

  • Repeated separations where the horses get distressed may make the situation worse not better.

The key to avoiding separation anxiety (or dealing with it), is to arrange weaning or any separation from a closely bonded horse, so that the separation increases gradually over an extended period of time, in small enough stages that neither party becomes distressed. In this way, the horses learn that they are always reunited and that they are able to stay relaxed and function normally whilst separated. This gradual increase in separation is the best way to develop a confident horse that is happy and relaxed when separated from bonded companions.

Like horses, we humans are also a social species and our children rely on us for their safety and wellbeing. So, to my mind, leaving them at childcare is a similar situation which needs the same gradual approach to avoid distressing the child (or parent!) and ensuring they stay happy and confident whilst they learn their parents will always come back to get them.

Other children may have been gradually introduced to being cared for by family members and friends outside of the home before starting day care, so the transition to daycare is minimal and easy, but this is not the case for our son. For us to transition to daycare we have a lot of new elements: a new environment, other children, different carers and I won’t be nearby to come and comfort him if he needs it. To introduce these elements, we had a plan to do a gradual transition at the child care centre. We would start by going to the centre together and then I would ease myself out of the picture as he got to know the carers and gained confidence and independence in that setting.

I say we had a plan, because COVID has thrown a spanner into the works!

The centres I explored would all have been happy with my plan for a gradual adjustment period pre-COVID, but due to new government restrictions on numbers, they no longer allow parents to enter the centres. So instead of being able to support my little one through the transition to daycare like I planned, I was told I would need to hand him over at the gate on day 1 and walk away. Sound familiar? Yep, an abrupt, complete separation from me that would be distressing for both of us.

From what I have explained, I’m sure you can see how this would just set my little guy up for a really distressing experience and a high risk of shattering his confidence, his trust and triggering separation anxiety. Of course I am not prepared to run the risk of that happening, so we are going back to the drawing board and coming up with a new plan.

I am so grateful, both that my background means that I understand WHY my mama heart is so upset by the suggestion that I hand over my baby to a stranger and walk away, and also that we are in a position to change our plan, to take longer, to explore other options, to wait and hope that the rules change. Not everyone has that privilege, which breaks my heart.

The more time I spend as a mother, using my training knowledge to setup situations where my son can succeed, learn easily and choose to cooperate with us, whilst retaining his spirit and sharing his opinions, the more I realise that humans and horses are more alike than not.

We experience the same emotions and we learn the same way. The differences between us are fewer than ever.

© Sara Jackson 2022


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