Most parents have to deal with toddler separation anxiety at some point. I've been there: the tears (hers and, yes, sometimes mine), the arms in a vicelike grip around my leg, the pleas of "Mommy, don't leave me!" ringing in my ears. And, of course, the guilt — because who wants to make their kid cry?
But separation anxiety is a common developmental phase that many toddlers go through, so we need to ditch the guilt (repeat after me, "This is normal… this is normal…") and instead figure out how to make temporary separation from your kid a little easier — on both of you.
Every case is different, but a toddler typically begins to exhibit signs of separation anxiety around the 1-year point of infancy, licensed mental health counselor GinaMarie Guarino tells SheKnows. "It can begin as early as 6 months or as late as 2 years," she says. "Depending on the age and stage of the child, it can manifest itself as bouts of tantrums when the parent leaves, acting out for attention from the parent or even acting indifferent or ignoring the parent when receiving attention."
Typically, separation anxiety is caused by a major change or transition according to Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author. The change could be starting at day care, going to a new babysitter, moving from the parent's bedroom into their own room or even moving to a new house.
"As much as there may be a positive effect of excitement for the child, there is usually anxiety and worry attached to saying goodbye to the familiar and hello to the unknown," Walfish tells SheKnows.
Common symptoms of separation anxiety include sleep disruption, changes in eating patterns, increased clinginess (to Mom, Dad, important caregivers or toys) and accelerated worries about being alone and isolated.
To help ease separation anxiety, Dr. Cheryl Andaya, clinical psychologist and founder of LIVE with Courage Now, recommends reassuring your child that you will return shortly. "A short farewell is best — don't draw it out," she tells SheKnows. "Start with brief periods of separation and gradually make it longer (leave for half an hour, then an hour, etc.) to ease the transition."
Andaya also suggests having another trusted adult there to nurture, distract and help soothe your child. "A transition object such as a stuffed animal or another object to love on — 'a lovey' — can also help your child feel better," she says.
Another tip is to give your child a "pocket full of kisses" right before you leave. Explain to them that if they miss you during the day, they can reach into their pocket and pull out a kiss. Kiss them several times on their palm, counting together as you go, and let them tuck each one away for safekeeping. This can be a great reassurance and distraction technique.
Whatever you do, don't sneak away in the hope your child won't notice you've gone and therefore won't get upset. "This could exacerbate the separation anxiety if the child discovers you have suddenly disappeared," warns Andaya.
Guarino recommends setting clear boundaries and expectations with toddlers. Boundaries include short goodnight times and day care drop-offs. "Stick to a routine and don't encourage or coddle anxious behaviors to prevent the separation anxiety from growing," she says. "To compensate, promote independence and confidence within your child to give them a sense of self-sufficiency by allocating tasks, such as self-feeding, cleaning up toys, brushing teeth, etc."
As with any difficult life change or developmental stage, Walfish recommends what she calls "empathetic narration." In other words, talk to your kid!
"Encourage your child to directly express all their powerful feelings to you, including sadness, excitement, fear and anger," she says. "Talk things through out loud and tell your child you understand that change is hard for everyone — both kids and grown-ups."
On the other hand, this is not a time to display your own strong emotions. You're probably just as distressed about leaving your kid as they are — but you definitely won't get away with dissolving into tears or throwing a hissy fit on the floor. As tough as it is, you have to try to hold it together (at least until you're out the door, and then you can go ahead and have a breakdown) and behave in a positive fashion during drop-off time. Avoid saying things like, "Mommy will miss you too," and instead try, "We are going to have so much fun when I see you later" and "You're going to have such a great day — I can't wait until you tell me about it when I pick you up." Your kid will pick up on your positive attitude.
Remember, there's no one-size-fits-all when it comes to helping your child navigate separation anxiety. (The same goes for all parenting challenges, naturally.) You might have to try a few different approaches until you figure out what works for you and your child.