Have you dropped off your toddler at child care, or left the little ones with a sitter for a night out, only to hear their cries, begging you not to go? It hurts my heart! Separation anxiety is actually a sign of a healthy attachment to the primary caregiver. So, why is it happening? How soon will it end? What can you do to help reduce the anxiety?
Separation anxiety in the early years can occur at just about any time, and is individual to the child. It is completely natural, and a normal sign of development. You are their source of love and security, so your toddler wants to stay close to you. When you leave, the situation becomes a bit more unpredictable. Until they gain trust in the new or temporary caregiver (babysitter, Grandma, teachers in child care), they will want you to stay. By crying, they are communicating their displeasure. Crying says, “Hey! I don’t want you to go! We are supposed to stay together all the time!” But, in reality, we know that’s not always possible. So, what can you do to ease the transition?
First, let them know ahead of time. Toddlers don’t have a sense of time the way adults do…try to help them understand. “First we will have lunch, then Grandma is coming to play. Mommy is going to work, and will see you after dinner.” Don’t dwell on it, just plant the idea so that it doesn’t get sprung on them suddenly when Grandma knocks on the door.
Most importantly, NEVER sneak away! By slipping out the door when they aren’t looking, you are actually worsening the problem. This teaches them that they could turn around at any moment and POOF! you’re gone. Think about it…if you walked out of the room to grab your drink, and came back to find your spouse gone, you’d never let them out of your sight! Your toddler trusts you. By slipping away, you are breaking that trust. You always want to say goodbye, be calm and confident. Get down on their level, give a reassuring hug, and make it quick. “Mommy always comes back.” Once you are out of sight, they can generally quickly recover. Don’t linger.
If they have a security item, such as a stuffed animal or blanket, ask the caregiver if your child can hold it for a bit after you leave. Let them hold a picture of you both together. Give a kiss on their hand and have them “keep it in their pocket”. Put on lipstick and kiss a piece of paper that they can fold and hold. For older toddlers and preschoolers, have them draw you a picture while you’re gone.
It can take a few weeks or a month to get past this separation anxiety stage. Be patient with your toddler. They will come to trust and understand that you always come back. It can (and will!) reoccur, especially if a child is going through a stressful situation, a life change (such as divorce or birth of a new baby), or even an illness.
If separation anxiety becomes extreme, and your child is consistently unable to be consoled, or includes crying so hard that they make themselves sick, reach out to your pediatrician.
What tips or tricks have you tried to reduce your child’s separation anxiety? Today’s topic was suggested by one of our frequent readers. Do you have a topic you’d like to see us cover? Add it in the comments section!