Eileen Wolter never used to have trouble leaving her son with a sitter while she went to Pilates class. But when he was about 18 months old, things changed. "Graeme would scream and cry when the sitter arrived, and once I'd gone, he'd camp out near the front door," says the Summit, New Jersey, mom. What made him start reacting so dramatically? It's simple: He started thinking like a toddler, says psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent. "As children start walking, they begin to assert their independence and move away from their parents. But they're not ready to fully separate," she explains. So when they're apart from you, they may also feel a strong need to be back by your side.
Around 16 to 20 months, toddlers are working to develop more mastery over their body (think running and self-feeding), and every new challenge that they face can cause stress, Dr. Walfish notes. As a result, they feel conflicted about being away from the security of their parents. While this phase may take months or even years to pass, there's plenty you can do ease separation anxiety in different situations.
The Trigger: Saying Goodbye
Whether you're dropping your child off at day care or leaving her at home with Grandma, farewells can be tough. By now your toddler understands object permanence -- the idea that something continues to exist when it can't be seen or heard (even Mom). However, she still needs reassurance that when you leave, you'll always come back. You can help give her this sense by playing simple games; start with peekaboo and then try the bye-bye game, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution. To play the latter, say "bye-bye" to your child, hide behind a chair, then pop out. "This involves more separation than peekaboo," she explains. Finally move on to hide-and-seek.
When it comes time for you to leave your kid for real, give her advance warning that a sitter will be arriving or that you'll be dropping her off, and then keep your goodbye brief. "If you act anxious, or keep returning for another hug, she will think there is something to worry about," says Vincent Barone, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospitals & Clinics, in Kansas City, Missouri. (Avoid sneaking out, which can cause her to worry that you might disappear without warning -- and result in more clinginess.)
It can help to develop a very brief ritual for the process. You might say, "Mommy will be back to get you after work. I love you." Then hug your child quickly or give her a butterfly kiss or a high five -- and leave. By keeping farewells the same each time, you create a familiar transition from being with you to being without you. Another smart move: Ask your sitter or day-care teacher to have an activity ready as soon as you turn your child over. Getting her engaged in a clapping game or a new toy will take her mind off the fact that you're leaving, Pantley notes.
The Trigger: Handling a Big Group
Going to a large gathering can be particularly anxiety-provoking for your toddler, who may be afraid of losing you in a crowd. When you arrive someplace with a lot of unfamiliar (or even familiar) faces, avoid pushing him to interact or run off to play without you -- wait until he takes an interest in others. Follow his lead. If he does let someone else entertain him, don't wander off and disappear. "He might accept being held by someone, but only minutes later decide that it's too much," says Pantley. Be ready to scoop him up if he gets upset; pushing him beyond his limit will make the next group situation more difficult. And don't stress if you end up having to stay by your toddler's side the whole time. "You're not crippling him -- you're offering support, which will help him feel comfortable in future social settings," Dr. Walfish assures.
The Trigger: Going to Sleep
Leaving your toddler in her room at night or for a nap can inspire anxiety, since these are probably the longest stretches of alone time she regularly experiences. Be sure to establish a relaxing order of events before sleep, such as a bath, then a story or songs. This will help ease her into the notion that bedtime (and alone time) is coming. Also give your child a lovey to hold and turn on some soothing sounds, like a CD of ocean waves. This will make the quiet in her room less obvious in your absence, says Pantley.
If she wakes up from a nap and is happily playing in her crib, don't rush in to get her. "Let your child have the chance to experience what it feels like to be by herself and having a good time," says Pantley. Finding that she's comfortable with it will boost her confidence and independence, as well as help her feel more secure on her own in the long run.
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Parents magazine.