As normal as separation anxiety is in young children, it's painful for parent and child to experience. Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., shares strategies that can help ease the anxiety.

By Emily Edlynn, Ph.D.
May 14, 2020
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Illustration by Yeji Kim

Dear Anxious,

There may be nothing more mama gut-wrenching than the sights and sounds of your young child's separation anxiety. Even when we know it is one of the not-so-fun developmental milestones, it is guilt-inducing and also normal to wonder if it's, well, normal.

Your daughter is at the age where this behavior is indeed normal, no matter how intense or constant it may feel. It's possible that stress or a recent change in her life has triggered the intensity of her symptoms, but it's still a typical way for a toddler to respond since she doesn't have the capacity to process and express complex emotions.

How to Help Young Children Through Separation Anxiety

Thankfully, there are plenty of strategies we know help young children work through this stage in a less painful way for all. As many seasoned daycare teachers will encourage us to do, the quicker the goodbye, the better. The more we drag out the hugs and reassurance, the longer the child is emotionally ramping up to the inevitable point when we have to leave, making it harder on both of us. It can help to come up with a ritual so the (quick) goodbye feels the same each day (eg, a big hug, a kiss on each cheek, and then a last wave through the window); this consistency in itself can help ease a child's anxiety.

Avoid making broken promises.

It might be tempting to reassure, "I'll be back to pick you up SO fast!" or "I'll only be gone a few minutes" when it could be an hour for an errand. If they expect you at a certain point (and of course toddlers do not understand time), and you do not in fact return when they expect, their anxiety is likely to worsen and they will not trust your reassurance the next time.

Stay calm.

Some daycare drop-offs are still burned in my memory—my usually easygoing 3-year-old's red face screaming with tears, stretching her arms toward me in panic and desperation as if I were leaving her in the jaws of a monster. It gets our heart racing as our own anxiety about leaving our child in this state goes against all the nurturing instincts. However, the more we project that all is well with a calm, unruffled reassurance, (and again—fast departure) the better for them.

Decrease her physical dependency on you.

Some kids respond to giving them an item that reminds them of you for them to physically hold as a way to feel close to you, like a shirt that smells like you in her bed at night. Maybe figure out an object your daughter associates with you that she can bring with her to the babysitter's or her father's house to help her feel connected without you physically present.

Keep leaving.

Of course, most of us don't have a choice about this, but it can be tempting to give in to the distress and leave our child as little as possible. But you are giving her the opportunity to build confidence she can get through the distress and will be able to one day say goodbye with a wave and a smile. Eventually, even running off to her friends without a glance back! The risk of rescuing your child from their anxiety now is worse anxiety later.

When to Worry About Separation Anxiety

With a 20-month-old, chances are she will outgrow these behaviors as just another early childhood phase. When could these behaviors convert from normal into a diagnosable Separation Anxiety Disorder? You would need a professional evaluation by a mental health professional, but in general, separation anxiety behaviors are considered a disorder when they are occurring at older ages (usually older than 5), interfering with important daily life, like going to school or spending time with friends, and lasting for months without improving.

Although these separation anxiety behaviors are normal for young children, we also want to be sure we are not missing red flags in the caregiving environment, especially for barely verbal toddlers. If you see other warning signs that somewhere you leave your child may be unsafe, you need to investigate. You may not be able to rely on your toddler's reporting, but you can follow guidelines for indicators of higher quality care found here: Why Quality Matters in Early Child Care: AAP Policy Explained. And of course, listen to your old-fashioned gut instincts.

The Bottom Line

It's possible you could do everything you should to ease your child's separation anxiety, and it will persist . . . for now. Let yourself off the hook, put her on your hip if you need to, and know that she won't still be there when she goes to college! Often, this phase vanishes as suddenly as it seemed to start, and you are on to some other fun phase to figure out.

Submit your parenting questions here, and they may be answered in future 'Ask Your Mom' columns. 

Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.

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