How HR professionals can help parents (and their children) experiencing separation anxiety

Aila Malik

When it happens, it breaks our hearts every time. The tears, the solemn looks, the genuine fears of being left – all happen when our children experience separation anxiety as we drop them to school on our way to work — they suffer but so do we. Shifting from prying my hysterically crying 3-year-old son off my legs to entering a conference room 20 minutes later for a presentation wasn’t easy, and often it was downright impossible. And, while the separation anxiety behavior is between you and your child – the fallout affects the classroom and caretaker, co-workers and clients, and, ultimately can influence productivity, morale and overall engagement.

Data & Dilemma

After some research and many discussions, I learned that it was "normal" for children to go through a difficult time with transitions away from loved ones. Divorced parents who share custody, for example, often have to deal with this until the child is settled in the other home. Unfortunately, knowing it was "just a phase" for my son didn’t ease how troubling and professionally distracting it was for me. Most articles and blogs pointed to the value of consistent routines and loving, non-negotiable communication at the time of separation. Yet I couldn’t find a way to talk to my 3 year old in a way that I could assess the level of his daily anxiety, how long during the day it lasted and how this impacted the growth in his coping skills. And, while he suffered, unfortunately so did my office mornings and often even longer throughout the day.

How Pocket Mommy Happened

One day, in pure desperation, I grabbed a small finger puppet out of our kitchen junk drawer and told him that today’s drop-off was going to be different because he had a secret super power—a "pocket mommy" (even though it was a tiger puppet) that was going to be in his pocket for the school day. It worked! The drop-off went from hysteria to a sniffle. Over the next week, we tried the "pocket mommy" idea and talked about it every day after school. I asked what pocket mommy saw and when he wanted to take her out of his pocket. I began to learn through the pocket mommy tool when my son missed me the most. I found patterns—nap time and line-up times were the worst. The teachers and I found new ways to engage him during those times. In a few weeks, my son was confident not only at drop-off but throughout the entire day, which allowed him to take emotional risks in making new friends and acquiring new experiences. And, I was able to increase my own productivity by using my drive time to focus on my upcoming meetings instead of worrying about the drop-off.

The Book, Paper Doll and Tips

After sharing my solution with other families, I was encouraged to share the "pocket mommy" concept through a children’s storybook with the boy character named after my own son, Zayan. My vision was to help other families realize they weren’t alone in the challenge and create a few ethnically diverse cut-out paper dolls on the back cover to make the ending a come-to-life experience. I have received dozens of emails, tweets, and letters from other parents, but my delight was in learning that the book is now used in several HR departments. I am so glad that Pocket Mommy has been added to HR employee resource pages, become part of office baby-shower gift baskets, and included by hiring managers as part of parent-employee welcome packets.

To purchase a copy of Pocket Mommy, click here.

Aila Malik is a Bay-area professional working mother (attorney & non-profit exec) and author of Pocket Mommy, a storybook with beautiful illustrations by Vincenzo Lara. Since publication in late 2013, Pocket Mommy has attracted national attention by parents and HR executives who are using the book as a positive way to deal with toddler separation anxiety. You can reach Aila by email or Facebook.