A Parent's Guide to Separation Anxiety in Toddlers
If goodbyes are full of screams and tears, your little one might have separation anxiety. "As children begin walking, they assert their independence and move away from their parents. But they're not ready to fully separate," explains psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent. When toddlers are apart from you, they might feel a strong need to be back by your side, since they crave the familiarity and security you provide.
Read on to learn more about separation anxiety in toddlers, with tips for easing the worry whenever you walk out the door.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Whether you're dropping your child off at daycare or leaving her 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 and Dad). But toddlers can’t yet comprehend the concept of time. Leaving them in a bedroom for a few minutes or with a babysitter for a few hours feels like the same amount of time for them. This can be scary, since toddlers believe their survival is dependent on having a primary caregiver close by.
Also, "somewhat ironically, anxiety can be a sign of the child's increasing autonomy," says Miranda Goodman-Wilson, assistant professor of psychology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. "They have their own opinion on the situation—that parents shouldn't leave—and want to exert control."
What Triggers Separation Anxiety in Toddlers?
The following scenarios might trigger separation anxiety in children and toddlers.
Saying Goodbye: 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. Toddlers need reassurance that when you leave, you'll always come back.
Large Gatherings: Going to a large gathering can be particularly anxiety-provoking for your toddler, who may be afraid of losing you in a crowd.
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.
Separation Anxiety Symptoms
Separation anxiety is "typically most prevalent between 8 and 18 months,” says Erin Boyd-Soisson, Ph.D., associate professor of human development at Messiah College in Grantham, Pennsylvania.
Symptoms usually start when a caregiver is departing. Children may cling, throw a tantrum, or resist other caregivers in an attempt to convince the parent not to leave. They may also show signs of fear and restlessness when a parent is in another room, he's left alone at bedtime, or he’s being dropped off at daycare.
The outbursts usually subside once the caregiver is out of view. "This anxiety serves to keep the child close to the caregiver, who is their source of love and safety," Dr. Boyd-Soisson says.
Do Toddlers Outgrow Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety decreases as a child ages, but similar feelings may return for short periods of time for other reasons. "When older toddlers or preschoolers are sick or stressed, separation anxiety can be triggered again," Dr. Boyd-Soisson says. "For example, most 2-year-olds who have been in daycare for a while are often fine when their parents leave. However, when they are starting to get sick, or if they are under stress, it is not uncommon for them to cling to their parents at drop-off."
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Rest assured this behavior is a normal part of development and will disappear over time. Every child is unique and there is no set time frame for when separation anxiety appears or disappears. It may even take a few months for a child's anxiety to dissipate, so be prepared for regression, especially when routines change because of vacation, illness, or a move.
When Do I Need to Worry?
Although it may be difficult to hear a child cry, remember that separation anxiety does have a positive aspect: It indicates that a healthy attachment has bonded a caregiver and child.
You should still watch your child to see if her separation anxiety appears extreme, says Julia F. Heberle, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania. Dr. Heberle recommends analyzing the situation surrounding your child's feelings. Is there parental conflict, divorce, or something wrong with the child-care setting? If so, the symptoms of separation anxiety may be amplified. If a toddler is showing excessive symptoms, such as vomiting or unrelenting worry, contact your pediatrician.
How to Handle Separation Anxiety Disorder
Separation anxiety in toddlers may last months or years, but there's plenty you can do to ease symptoms. Follow these tips to help banish your little one’s worries.
Keep your goodbyes brief. Whenever you leave your kid, 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. (Also avoid sneaking out, which can cause her to worry that you might disappear without warning—and result in more clinginess.) Try to convey that the time apart is temporary and is not a cause for alarm.
Develop a ritual for leaving. It can help to develop a very brief routine for the process. You might say, "Mommy will be back to get you after work. I love you." Then hug your child and leave. By keeping farewells the same each time, you create a familiar transition from being with you to being without you.
Prepare an activity. Ask your sitter or daycare 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, notes Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution.
Don’t brush off her anxiety. Try to acknowledge your toddler’s separation anxiety, says Donna Holloran, owner of Babygroup, Inc. in Santa Monica, California. You could say, "I know you're going to have a really good time with Grandma, but it's OK if you miss me. You can tell Grandma you miss Mommy, and I bet Grandma will give you a really big hug."
Pay attention to your child at large gatherings. When you arrive someplace with a lot of faces, avoid pushing your toddler to interact without you. Instead, wait until he takes an interest in others— but don't wander off and disappear if he lets someone entertain him. "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.
Make a soothing bedtime routine. Establish a relaxing order of events before sleep, such as a bath followed by 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.
Give her independence after a nap. 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.