A Parent's Guide to Separation Anxiety in Toddlers

Does your toddler cry or cling as you're leaving the room? They may be experiencing separation anxiety. Learn how to identify the signs and help your little one feel comfortable without you.

back view of dad holding son
Photo: Image taken by Mayte Torres/Getty Images

If goodbyes with your toddler are full of screams and tears, your little one might be experiencing separation anxiety. "As children begin walking, they assert their independence and move away from their parents. But they're not ready to fully separate," says psychotherapist Fran Walfish, Psy.D., author of The Self-Aware Parent.

Toddlers may act like they can do everything themselves, but as soon as you leave they want to be back by your side since they crave the familiarity and security you provide. But knowing that it's normal doesn't make it easy—for either of you.

Read on to learn more about separation anxiety in toddlers, with tips on easing your child's worries (or your own).

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Whether you're dropping your child off at daycare or leaving them at home with Grandma, farewells can be tough. By the time they're able to walk, children understand object permanence—the idea that something (or someone) continues to exist even when it can't be seen or heard.

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 nearby.

In a strange way, the fact that they are so concerned is a good thing. "Somewhat ironically, anxiety can be a sign of a child's increasing autonomy," says Miranda Goodman-Wilson, Ph.D., a content editor at the American Institutes for Research, which conducts research on behavioral and social science. "They have their own opinion on the situation—that parents shouldn't leave—and want to exert control."

Causes of Separation Anxiety in Toddlers

The following scenarios might trigger separation anxiety in your little ones.

Saying goodbye

Toddlers are working to develop more mastery over their bodies (think running and self-feeding), and every new challenge they face can cause stress, Dr. Walfish notes. As a result, they can 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 their room at night or for a nap can inspire anxiety since naptime and nighttime are probably the longest stretches of alone time they regularly experience.

Separation Anxiety Symptoms

Separation anxiety is "typically most prevalent between 8 and 18 months," says Erin Boyd-Soisson, Ph.D., a professor of human development and family science at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. When a caregiver departs, a child 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 their parent goes into another room, drops them off at daycare, or leaves them alone at bedtime.

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 tends to decrease as a child gets older, 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," says Dr. Boyd-Soisson. "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."

This behavior is a normal part of child development and will ease and fade away over time. Every child is unique, however, so there is no set period during which separation anxiety will begin or end. At times it may take a few months for a toddler'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 your child cry, remember that separation anxiety does have a positive aspect: It indicates that a healthy attachment has formed between a caregiver and a child. While separation anxiety in toddlers isn't something to worry about, do watch for signs of extreme anxiety, says Julia F. Heberle, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.

In a small number of cases, children beyond the age of toddlerhood will develop separation anxiety disorder. 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, separation anxiety may be amplified. (A family history of anxiety may also play a role.) If your child shows excessive symptoms, such as vomiting, nightmares, or unrelenting worry, contact your pediatrician.

How to Handle Your Child's Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety in toddlers may last months or years, but there's plenty you can do to ease the symptoms. Follow these tips to help banish your child's worries.

Keep your goodbyes brief

Whenever you leave your child, give them advance warning that a babysitter will be arriving or that you'll be dropping them off, then say a quick goodbye. "If you act anxious, or keep returning for another hug, they will think there is something to worry about," says Vincent Barone, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. (Also avoid sneaking out, which can cause them to worry that you might disappear without warning—and result in more clinginess.) Try to convey that the time apart is temporary and not cause for alarm.

Develop a ritual for leaving

It can help to develop a very brief routine for the process. You might say, "I 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, daycare teacher, or other caregiver to have an activity ready as soon as you hand your toddler over. Getting children engaged in a clapping game or new toy takes their mind off the fact that you're leaving, says Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution.

Don't brush off their anxiety

Be sure 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 me, 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 they take an interest in others—but don't wander off and disappear. "They might accept being held by someone, but only minutes later decide that it's too much," says Pantley.

Be ready to scoop your child up if they get upset; pushing them beyond their limits will only make the next group situation more difficult. And don't stress if you have to stay by your toddler's side the whole time. "You're not crippling them—you're offering support, which will help them feel comfortable in future social settings," says Dr. Walfish.

Create a soothing bedtime routine

Establish a relaxing nighttime ritual, such as a bath followed by a favorite storybook or songs. This will help your toddler adjust to the fact that bedtime (and alone time) is approaching. Give them a lovey to hold and turn on some soothing sounds, like soft white noise or a recording of ocean waves. It will make the quiet in their room less obvious when you leave, says Pantley.

Give them independence after a nap

If your toddler wakes up from a nap and is happily playing in their crib, don't rush in to get them. "Let your child have the chance to experience what it feels like to be by themselves and have a good time," suggests Pantley. Finding that they're comfortable with it will boost their confidence and independence, and ultimately help them feel more secure on their own.

Updated by Melissa Balmain
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