Expert Tips About Toddler Separation Anxiety

Judith Barr, psychotherapist
Judith Barr discusses toddler separation anxiety.

Judith Barr has been a depth psychotherapist in private practice since 1975, and has earned an M.S. in Counseling and licensure as a Mental Health Counselor in Florida, New York, and Connecticut. She has published an audio series, The Spoken Word on Behalf of the Feminine and more than three dozen articles for both professionals and the general public. She has also been interviewed in a variety of radio, TV, and print media, including, the nationally syndicated The Joey Reynolds Show, Culture Shocks with Barry Lynn, The Dr. Pat Show, One On One With Steve Adubato, and Jill Magazine. In the following interview, Judith discusses toddler separation anxiety.

Please tell us more about yourself.

I offer my healing expertise in an array of formats, including working with individuals, groups, workshops, and consultations. In addition, I offer training and supervision programs for healing arts professionals. Through my numerous speaking engagements, and radio, TV and print interviews, I inspire and help people change their lives from the inside-out. My book Power Abused, Power Healed and my work with power move me to explore beyond my imagination . . . how I can be of further service in our world.

What are some causes of separation anxiety in toddlers?

Separation anxiety in toddlers is 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. This may be due to such causes as:

  • Maybe the child had an experience without mommy/daddy previously that was frightening to the child
  • Maybe mom/dad was away or in the hospital for some reason, and the child was without her/him for too long for a little one
  • Perhaps the child has had painful experiences with people other than mom and dad and is afraid of experiencing that again
  • Perhaps the child had an experience with mommy/daddy previously that was frightening to the child and interfered with development of a secure sense of self in the world
  • Perhaps the child hasn't yet internalized mommy/daddy in a solid enough way to feel secure without her/his live presence

What can parents do to ease the pain of separation with their toddlers?

Since separation anxiety is such a delicate matter, you need to be a detective to find out the source of the anxiety and how to respond to your child. You need to be a courageous detective, since the source of the anxiety may relate to previous experiences the child has had perhaps even with you, yourself. 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.

Some specifics include the following:

  • You need to be more focused on your child's needs than on the "task" of separating. For example, you need to ease into the separation, not do it abruptly. 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. If you know you are going to be leaving your child at daycare for the first time(s) because you are going to begin a job, start taking him/her to daycare some weeks before the "live" event. 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.
  • 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.
  • After taking in all the input you can about your child's experience, there may be a need to adjust the process for the next day. Flexibility is very important.

This isn't the way our world usually works. Our world is very task oriented and focused on doing what you have to do and getting on with it. But, if you truly want to help your child through the separation stage, it calls for living a different way than how our world works. How the separation anxiety is handled can be an experience/re-experience of abandonment or can be a healing to previous experiences of abandonment. (Abandonment may seem like a strong word here . . . it's not. I've worked with many people who, as adults, are still struggling with childhood experiences of abandonment related to separation.)

Put yourself in your child's place and keep your heart open to your child. Although it is about a later aged child, the movie Martian Child shows a parent helping his child through a process with exquisite sensitivity, compassion, understanding, connection, and action.

What can caregivers do to help children adjust to time away from their parents?

  • They can support and encourage parents to respond to the child in the ways suggested above to help ease the child's pain and fear.
  • They can also connect with and respond to the child in similar ways as those I've suggested for the parents.

How should parents handle tantrums at the time of separation?

  • You need to see a tantrum as an expression of fear and pain. Too often parents assume a tantrum is something manipulative that needs to be controlled. Yes, it is true that there are times when a child in pain discovers that some behavior will cause mommy or daddy to respond in a certain way and then do that behavior again, but that isn't what separation anxiety is about.
  • You need to go step by step with your child in the passage through the separation anxiety. 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 s/he can feel me connected to him/her. I would say, "I know. I know. I know."
  • Eventually I would ask the child what would help, and maybe offer some suggestions. 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.
  • I would have faith that we would work through this, whether in this moment or an hour from now.

Where can we read more about you?

More information about my work is available on my Web sites and

Do you have any other advice you'd like to offer our readers?

In helping my child through separation anxiety, anyone that didn't accept my commitment to helping my child through this would need to know I would be a mama lioness on behalf of my child's safety, development, and well being. I encourage you to be a mama lioness or papa lion in behalf of your child.

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Expert Tips About Toddler Separation Anxiety