Dealing with Your Toddler's Separation Anxiety


It’s a wrench having to drag yourself out the door every time you need to go to work and the morning is filled with your little one’s heart-rending wails and sobs. Apart from the anticipated traffic, you’ve got an emotional appeal for you to stay home longer than it takes to navigate the road to the office. Your toddler is going through separation anxiety. Early on Liv Reyes, started Andrea, now 9, on understanding that she always kept her promises of returning and tantrums would not work. “I tell her that I'm leaving in a matter-of-fact way because when she sees I'm sad or distressed about leaving, she feeds off that emotion. The day before I leave I explain what time I'm supposed to leave and what time I will get home. The first few times there were tears but I would just say, 'Bye I'll be back.' I don't get sucked into the drama. Then I go back as agreed upon. When she figured out the drama was pointless, it stopped."

"For me, this is about your kid knowing you're reliable, that he can trust what you say. I started with short trips and say, 'Mommy will be back in 10 minutes' and I return. Once they are secure in that, it's easier for them to be okay with longer trips."

Mec Arevalo, soon-to-be mom of three, adds, "Sometimes they would cry. After I come back and it's bedtime, I discuss that with them. I remind them that I keep my promises and in the event that something happens preventing me from coming back ever, that they have to go on believing they are loved and our rules will always apply. If I get late in coming back, I am profuse with apologies and explanation, like if caught in the rain or flood and it was traffic. But usually I call when they expect me home and am not yet there."

At this age, a young child has formed tight bonds with parents and it’s shocking when the constant, familiar figure of comfort and security disappears from sight for any length of time. However, there are ways to soothe away the tears and guide your child to feeling secure even as you manage your own anxiousness.

1. Don't just disappear: Sneaking off may work if he's too small to notice you're gone or when he's asleep. With a toddler's developing concept of time, however, a few minutes may seem like forever. Sudden disappearances will not ease him through the phase and may prolong his anxiety. It can also break your child's trust and heart that you would just leave without a proper goodbye.

2. Lay the groundwork: The unexpected triggers unpleasant reactions, so start talking to him about the process of leaving and returning. Practice him by going out of the room and coming back in small increments of time that get longer and longer in between. Talk to him from his point of view. Instead of saying you'll be back at 6PM, for example, tell him you'll be home after his favorite show or after nap time.

3. Have a routine: Predictability provides comfort for young children and creating your own goodbye ritual is a great way to ease anxiety. Try to have a regular personal schedule and prepare a routine with your child that leads up to it. After you leave, have your caregiver gently redirect attention away from you with a toy or activity that would immediately engage your child.

4. Keep it short and sweet: Goodbyes should be short and simple. Don't prolong the agony or respond to the ensuing tantrums with overly conciliatory offers that scream bribery. Tell your child where you are going and when you'll be back. Use a cheerful, matter-of-fact voice and confident body language to assure him that things are going to be okay.

5. The waiting buddy: A caregiver or family member can be introduced early on as someone who will regularly care for him as he waits for you, giving your child time to accept another person as your temporary (but of course, in no way equal) substitute. Establishing a meaningful bond of trust between them while you are around will give them a bigger chance of going through the day happily without you. Another way to ease anxieties is to offer a cuddly friend to hug and keep your child company while you’re away. Make it a part of your goodbye ritual, along with a word to the toy to keep an eye on your child until you get back. A touch of humor and whimsy helps assure your child that all is well. You can even call home on a certain time every day to check in. It will be another soothing, comforting tactic, a regular part of the day that your child can look forward to.

6. Assign a mission: Keeping him busy until you get back is one way for him to have a sense of control over a distressing situation. It can be something as simple as putting his toys away, making drawings for you or as part of your goodbye ritual, giving your car keys to you.

7. Celebrate coming home: Even if you feel tired and cranky, put a smile on and have a cheery “I’m home!” for the little one who’s been waiting for you. Always make it a point to remind your child that you have kept your promise of coming back when you said you would. Have a routine of greeting each other and asking about how the day went for you both. Then have extra one-on-one bonding time to satisfy your child’s yearning for you.

Consistency is the key to stress-free mornings or whenever you need to leave your toddler behind. Separation anxiety normally subsides as a child grows older or has been able to adjust to the new status quo. It may be rough in the beginning but don’t cave in when you’re too tired or stressed out to tough it out. You’re just going to set back your progress if you just ease up or give in “this one time.” Add extra hugs, kisses, and bonding time but don’t change the rules.

Of course, regression happens especially if there is a new stressor present or your child is sick. When your child shows unusually increasing or extreme distress, you may need to investigate the roots of this anxiety and consult your pediatrician for advice.