Does your toddler cry or cling as you’re leaving the room? She may be experiencing separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety varies widely between children. For example, some babies become hysterical when the mom is out of sight for a short time. At the same time, other children seem to demonstrate ongoing anxiety at separations during infancy, toddlerhood, and preschool.
From a parent’s perspective, it can help to remember that if our children didn’t want us close, we wouldn’t be able to take care of them.
Being attached is the superglue that binds us to each other and provides a sense of home, comfort, and belonging. Attachment is the doorway through which missing and separation anxiety enter.
Toddlers and preschoolers also come with shyness instincts that make them inconsistent when receiving care from others.
This results from healthy brain development by six months of age, where a child zeros in on one primary caretaker.
At this time, the child will display stranger protest towards others and show a clear preference towards whom they want to be close to.
The instinct to shy away from strangers is nature’s way of ensuring they follow the people responsible for caring for them.
If children are meant to miss their parents and shy away from substitute caregivers, how can we care for them given the separations that come with everyday life?
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Whether you’re dropping your child off at daycare or leaving her home with Grandma, farewells can be challenging.
By now, your toddler understands object permanence—the idea that something continues to exist when it can’t be seen or heard (even Mom and Dad). But toddlers can’t yet comprehend the concept of time.
Leaving them in a bedroom for a few minutes or with a babysitter for a few hours feels like the same amount of time for them.
This can be scary since toddlers believe their survival is dependent on having a primary caregiver close by.
Also, somewhat ironically, anxiety can be a sign of the child’s increasing autonomy. They have their own opinion on the situation—parents shouldn’t leave—and want to exert control.
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Facts About Separation Anxiety
Here are facts about separation anxiety and tips to improve the transitions, so you never have to learn the hard way:
Separation anxiety develops after a child gains an understanding of object permanence. Once your infant realises you’re gone (when you are), it may leave him unsettled.
Although some babies display object permanence and separation anxiety as early as 4 to 5 months, most develop more robust separation anxiety at around nine months.
The leave-taking can be worse if your infant is hungry, tired, or not feeling well. Keep transitions short and routine if it’s a tough day.
Many toddlers skip separation anxiety in infancy and start demonstrating challenges at 15 or 18 months of age.
Separations are more complicated when children are hungry, tired, or sick—most of the toddlerhood!
As children develop independence during toddlerhood, they may become even more aware of separations. As a result, their behaviours at breaks will be loud, tearful, and challenging to stop.
By the time children are three years of age, most clearly understand what their anxiety or pleas at separation have on us.
It doesn’t mean they aren’t stressed, but they certainly are vying for a change. Be consistent; don’t return to the room based on a child’s plea, and certainly don’t cancel plans based on separation anxiety.
Your ongoing consistency, explanations, and diligence to return when you say you will are tantamount.
What Triggers Separation Anxiety in Toddlers?
The following scenarios might trigger separation anxiety in children and toddlers.
Toddlers are working to develop more mastery over their bodies (think running and self-feeding), and every new challenge they face can cause stress.
As a result, they feel conflicted about being away from the security of their parents. Toddlers need reassurance that when you leave, you’ll always come back.
Going to a large gathering can be particularly anxiety-provoking for your toddler, who may be afraid of losing you in a crowd.
Going to Sleep:
Leaving your toddler in her room at night or for a nap can inspire anxiety since these are probably the most extended stretches of alone time she regularly experiences.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms
Separation anxiety is typically most prevalent between 8 and 18 months.
Symptoms usually start when a caregiver is departing. Children may cling, throw a tantrum, or resist other caregivers in an attempt to convince the parent not to leave.
They may also show signs of fear and restlessness when a parent is in another room, he’s left alone at bedtime, or he’s being dropped off at daycare.
The outbursts usually subside once the caregiver is out of view. “This anxiety serves to keep the child close to the caregiver, who is their source of love and safety,” Dr Boyd-Soisson says.
How to Survive Separation Anxiety
Create Quick Goodbye Rituals.
Even if you have to do major-league- baseball-style hand movements, give triple kisses at the cubby, or provide a special blanket or toy as you leave, keep the goodbye short and sweet. If you linger, the transition time does too. So will the anxiety.
Try to do the same drop-off with the same ritual at the same time each day you separate to avoid unexpected factors whenever you can.
A routine can diminish the heartache and allow your child to build trust in her independence and you simultaneously.
Attention: When separating, give your child full attention, be loving, and provide affection. Then say goodbye quickly despite her antics or cries for you to stay.
Keep Your Promise.
You’ll build trust and independence as your child becomes confident in her ability to be without you when you stick to your promise of return.
Be Specific, Child Style.
When you discuss your return, provide specifics that your child understands. For example, if you know you’ll be back by 3:00 pm, tell your child on his terms; for example, say, “I’ll be back after nap time and before afternoon snack.”
Define time he can understand. Talk about your return from a business trip in terms of “sleep.” Instead of saying, “I’ll be home in 3 days,” say, “I’ll be home after three periods of sleep.”
Practice Being Apart.
Ship the children off to grandma’s home, schedule playdates, allow friends and family to provide child care for you (even for an hour) on the weekend.
Before starting child care or preschool, practice going to school and your goodbye ritual before you even have to part ways. Give your child a chance to prepare, experience, and thrive in your absence!
Accept the Child’s Attachment Hunger and Provide for it Generously When You Can.
Take time to collect their attention and engage with them fully. Relationships characterised by delight, enjoyment, and warmth tend to nourish their relational needs most of all.
A more profound attachment with a child will help them grow as separate beings and face more separation.
Don’t Battle Their Behavior nor Increase Separation Through Discipline.
It’s essential not to battle against a child’s behaviour from pursuing their parents to the fears that appear at night—these are all just symptoms of the underlying separation problem.
If discipline is used that exacerbate the separation, such as time outs or consequences, then a child’s emotions will be more stirred up and their behaviour more difficult to manage.
The focus needs to be on connection, relationship, and how we are holding on to them.
Bridge the Distance to Reduce Feelings of Separation.
A bridge is meant to connect two sides, despite the things that are too big to cross and in-between—like work, sleep, and school when it comes to our kids.
Our focus needs to provide the antidote to separation, that is, connection. We need to help our kids feel connected to us despite the impasse that is between us.
Instead of focusing on the goodbye, we talk about the next hello, such as the plans for the following day or what you will do together when home from work.
At bedtime, you can focus on when you will come back and check on them or how you will meet them in your dreams.
You can give the preschooler a picture of you to hold onto or connect with them over lunch in the daytime.
Play Matchmaker and Help the Child Accept Their Alternate Caretakers.
We can’t blame young children for preferring their parents, but we can take comfort in knowing they can attach to other people too.
Given their shy solid instincts, we must introduce them to the people we want to care for them.
We can’t leave these relationships up for grabs but must prime it by showing them we sanction the connection.
This can include warmly introducing them to each other, pointing out similarities and common interests, and conveying that you like this person and trust them.
A child will follow those to whom they are attached, and if you demonstrate that you like the caretaker, they will follow suit with time and patience.
Encourage and Support Tears of Missing.
Tears are part of the brain’s inner workings to release emotional energy when stirred up. So tears are not a problem; they are the answer when the missing is too much.
It is essential to ensure a child has someone they feel comfortable sharing their upset, crying, or retreating to for comfort.
When they can count on someone to help them emotionally, it will build trust and security with their caretaker and help them adapt to the separation from their parents.
Keep your goodbyes brief. Whenever you leave your kid, give her a warning that a sitter will be arriving or that you’ll be dropping her off, and then keep your goodbye brief.
If you act anxious or keep returning for another hug, she will think there is something to worry about.
(Also, avoid sneaking out, which can cause her to worry that you might disappear without warning—and result in more clinginess.)
Try to convey that the time apart is temporary and is not a cause for alarm.
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Develop a Ritual for Leaving. It Can Help to Develop a Very Brief Routine for the Process.
You might say, “Mommy will be back to get you after work. I love you.” Then hug your child and leave.
By keeping farewells the same each time, you create a familiar transition from being with you to without you.
Prepare an activity. Ask your sitter or daycare teacher to have an activity ready when you turn your child over.
Getting her engaged in a clapping game or a new toy will take her mind off the fact that you’re leaving.
Don’t brush off her anxiety. Try to acknowledge your toddler’s separation anxiety. For example, you could say, “I know you’re going to have a perfect time with Grandma, but it’s OK if you miss me. You can tell Grandma you miss Mommy, and I bet Grandma will give you a huge hug.”
Pay attention to your child at large gatherings. When you arrive someplace with a lot of faces, avoid pushing your toddler to interact without you.
Instead, wait until he takes an interest in others— but don’t wander off and disappear if he lets someone entertain him. He might accept being held by someone, but only minutes later decide that it’s too much.
Be ready to scoop him up if he gets upset; pushing him beyond his limit will complicate the following group situation.
And don’t stress if you end up having to stay by your toddler’s side the whole time. You’re not crippling him—you’re offering support, which will help him feel comfortable in future social settings.
Make a Soothing Bedtime Routine.
Establish a relaxing order of events before sleep, such as a bath followed by a story or songs.
This will help ease her into the notion that bedtime (and alone time) is coming. Also, give your child a lovely hold and turn on some soothing sounds, like a CD of ocean waves. This will make the quiet in her room less evident in your absence, says Pantley.
Give her independence after a nap. If she wakes up from a nap and is happily playing in her crib, don’t rush in to get her.
Let your child have the chance to experience what it feels like to be by herself and have a good time.
Finding that she’s comfortable with it will boost her confidence and independence and help her feel more secure on her own in the long run.
Helping Children With Separation Anxiety
If your child is suffering from separation anxiety, you can do lots of things to help her.
In New Places
- If you’re leaving your child in a new setting – child care centre, preschool, friend’s house, babysitter – spend time at the new place with your child before the separation. Your child will be less distressed if he’s left in a safe, familiar place with familiar people he trusts.
- Let your child take something she loves from home, like a teddy bear, pillow or blanket. These objects will help your child feel safer, and you can gradually phase them out as she feels more settled in the new place.
- Tell your child’s child care centre, preschool or school about his separation anxiety, and let them know about anything you’re doing to help your child. This way, other people in your child’s environment can give him consistent support.
- Gently encourage your child to separate from you by giving her practice. It’s essential to give her positive experiences of separations and reunions. Avoiding breaks from your child can make the problem worse.
When You’re Leaving Your Child
- Tell your child when you’re leaving and when you’ll be back. This is helpful even with babies. Sneaking out without saying goodbye can make things worse. Your child might feel confused or upset when he realises you’re not around and might be harder to settle the next time you leave him.
- Settle your child in an enjoyable activity before you leave.
- Say goodbye to your child briefly – don’t drag it out.
- Keep a relaxed and happy look on your face when you’re leaving. If you seem worried or sad, your child might think the place isn’t safe and can get upset too.
- No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid criticising or being pessimistic about your child’s difficulty with separation. For example, avoid saying things like ‘She’s such a mummy’s girl’ or ‘Don’t be such a baby.
- Read books or makeup stories with your child about separation fears – for example, ‘Once upon a time, there was a little bunny who didn’t want to leave his mummy. He was afraid of what he might find outside his burrow …’ This might help your child feel he’s not alone in being afraid of separating from his parents.
- Make a conscious effort to foster your child’s self-esteem by giving her lots of positive attention when she’s brave about being away from you.
Do Toddlers Outgrow Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety decreases as child ages, but similar feelings may return for short periods for other reasons.
When older toddlers or preschoolers are sick or stressed, separation anxiety can be triggered again.
For example, most 2-year-olds who have been in daycare for a while are often fine when their parents leave.
However, when they are starting to get sick or under stress, it is not uncommon for them to cling to their parents at drop-off.
Rest assured, this behaviour is a normal part of the development and will disappear over time.
Every child is unique, and there is no set time frame for when separation anxiety appears or disappears.
It may even take a few months for a child’s anxiety to dissipate, so be prepared for regression, significantly when routines change because of vacation, illness, or a move.
When Do I Need to Worry?
Although it may be challenging to hear a child cry, remember that separation anxiety does have a positive aspect: It indicates that a healthy attachment has bonded a caregiver and child.
You should still watch your child see if her separation anxiety appears extreme.
Analyse the situation surrounding your child’s feelings. For example, is there parental conflict, divorce, or something wrong with the child-care setting?
If so, the symptoms of separation anxiety may be amplified.
If a toddler is showing excessive symptoms, such as vomiting or unrelenting worry, contact your pediatrician.
All You Working Moms & Dads
The trick for surviving separation anxiety demands preparation, swift transitions, and the evolution of time. Unfortunately, parents suffer as much as our children do when we leave.
Even though we are often reminded that our children stop crying within minutes of our leave-taking, how many of you have felt like you’re “doing it all wrong” when your child clings to your legs, sobs for you to stay, and mourns the parting?
Separation anxiety creates questions for working moms. Although it is entirely normal behaviour and a beautiful sign of a meaningful attachment, separation anxiety can be exquisitely unsettling for us all.
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