Expert Tips on Toddler Separation Anxiety

Eliza Martinez
Separation
Judith Barr

Toddler separation anxiety is described as, "a very delicate matter. In essence, the child does not feel secure enough inside him/herself to go out into the world without mommy/daddy," according to Judith Barr, a depth psychotherapist and expert on child development. Separation anxiety is quite common to some degree in all toddlers, it can be difficult for parents to manage. Understanding separation anxiety can help moms and dads with their little ones through this common 'bump' of toddlerhood.

10 Ideas for Dealing with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety can lead to tantrums, crying, clinging and a huge scene. You might begin to dread leaving your little one at all because you know what an emotional ordeal it's going to be. While the condition doesn't require medical treatment, there are a few things that parents can use to get through this difficult time.

Start Small

If your toddler has separation anxiety, suddenly leaving her for the entire day isn't a good idea. Instead, start with short amounts of time, suggests Dr. Laura Markham on the Aha! Parenting website. Try going for a coffee or take the dog on a walk while your toddler stays home with your spouse or another caregiver. Gradually add more time to your excursions as your toddler starts getting used to being apart. You can also leave in gradual increments. "Stay with him/her the first few times. Sit outside the room the next time, out on the playground the next time, and in the car the next time. At least once before the actual day, you need to drive away. Making sure your child knows what is going to occur is vital," says Barr. This slow adjustment schedule can make the actual event easier to handle.

Give Him a "Lovey"

Encourage your child to have a "lovey", a transitional object, such as a blanket or stuffed toy that he can hold onto...in other words, a security blanket. "Maybe I would have saved a necklace or bracelet or pin of some kind to give him/her to wear to remember we are connected, and I will be back later," says Barr. A family photo or one of mom's t-shirts are also good ideas, notes What to Expect.

Stay Calm

While it hurts to see your child so upset, and it can get frustrating that going to work or getting groceries has to be such a big issue, if you let your emotions show, it will only upset your child further. Don't start crying and getting flustered or it'll just make your child even more upset. Keep your goodbye calm and pleasant, encourages Kids Health. Getting upset just reinforces to your toddler that leaving really is traumatic.

Create an Exit Ritual

The experts at Kids Health encourage you to create an exit ritual. Say goodbye to your child, tell him when you'll be back and then leave. Coming back just confuses him and starts the whole process over. Stay firm and strong and keep the exit ritual exactly the same each time.

Don't Sneak Away

It's never a good idea to sneak out when your toddler isn't looking, note the experts at What to Expect. This only serves to make her think you're going to disappear anytime she isn't looking, which heightens her anxiety and makes leaving even more difficult. Let your toddler see you leave, but remember your exit ritual to ease the transition.

Make Introductions

Nothing makes separation anxiety worse than trying to leave your toddler with someone new. If you're going to be using a new caregiver, it's vital to make introductions before you leave, says Markham, who suggests letting the two get acquainted on a day when you don't plan to leave. That way, your toddler has you to back her up, but she gets the chance to meet her new caregiver in situation that makes her feel safe.

Distract Him

This isn't so you can sneak out. However, if you give your child something he loves to do when you leave, it can help him transition to time apart. The experts at Parenting magazine suggest giving your toddler a small job, such as closing the door when you leave. You might also ask him to hang on to your scarf and keep it safe until you get home or make sure the dog doesn't get lonely. Whatever the job, it can serve as a distraction so you can get out the door and your child can feel a bit of comfort with a consistent responsibility.

Stay Flexible

"Flexibility is very important," says Barr. If something doesn't work, don't be afraid to change things up if you need to. At the same time, be sure you listen and take stock in what your little one has to say. "You need to pay attention to your child's response when picking him/her up after the separation, and invite the child to talk about the experience. It needs to be okay with you if the child is angry about the separation, or has other feelings as well. Connecting about the truth of your child's experience is most important here," says Barr. This helps you decide what needs to change so your toddler is coping.

Talk to Your Child

Don't fall into the trap of thinking that separation anxiety is something only you need to deal with. It's also something your child is going through so it's important to include her in resolving the issue. "You need to be attuned to your child to find the right readiness, timing, pace, and specific ways to help your child resolve the separation anxiety," says Barr. Do this by talking to your child. Ask her what will help her get through this difficult process. "You need to talk with your child about what will be taking place, and to listen to your child's responses and look for clues in the process," advises Barr.

Expect Tantrums

Toddlers are well known for their ability to completely melt down when things don't go their way. That can make it tempting to just let it go and assume that the tantrum is just a ploy to make you feel bad or get you to linger just a bit longer before you leave. That might be the case with some tantrums, acknowledges Barr, but who also says, "If I had a child who was having a tantrum at the time of separation after all the preparation described above, I would respond by holding the child in my arms so she can feel me connected to her. I would say, 'I know. I know. I know.'" You want your toddler to know you understand and that you're in this together and that you're going to be there to get her through this, no matter what it takes.

Surviving

As an adult, you may not fully understand what the big deal is. It probably seems completely natural to be away at work or to want to go get groceries without a whining toddler at your heels. However, to your toddler, this separation can feel very scary. "How the separation anxiety is handled can be an experience/re-experience of abandonment, or it can be a healing to previous experiences of abandonment."

While abandonment may seem like a strong word to use for the situation, Barr insists it's not. "I've worked with many people who, as adults, are still struggling with childhood experiences of abandonment related to separation," says Barr. While you need to take care of yourself, it's important to do so in a way that also benefits your toddler.

Try taking a deep breath and reminding yourself that your toddler is terrified when you leave him, so do your best to comfort him and get him through each instance. Then, treat yourself with a mug of coffee, a new CD on the radio or a walk around the block at lunchtime. That way, you're calm and less frazzled, but your toddler is still getting the best of you before you leave.

Expert Tips on Toddler Separation Anxiety