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How to Help a Toddler with Separation Anxiety

mother comforting crying daughter on first day of preschool
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Separation anxiety is normal. Most children between the ages of 18 months and three years get nervous when mom or dad leaves them for an extended amount of time. Here’s how to handle it.

You know the scene. Mom and dad are headed out for a much-needed night on the town. Your child loves playing with Grandma when you come for a visit, but when you try to walk out the door, the flood gates open and your child turns into mini magnets, attached to your leg for dear life. What’s going on?

Symptoms of normal separation anxiety include being nervous about new locations or being without their parent, crying when the parent leaves, and wanting a comfort item.

“Separation anxiety is a normal stage in an infant’s development, as it helps children understand relationships and master their environment,” according to Psychology Today. However, this normal stage can pose lots of challenges for parents; here’s what you should know about helping your child get through it.

An Important Note on Separation Anxiety Disorder

Occasionally, normal separation anxiety can develop into Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD), which is a more extreme emotional reaction to being away from a parent or loved one. The Mayo Clinic notes that some symptoms of a more severe reaction include:

  • Excessive distress when leaving home or separated from attachment figures (mom, dad, grandparents, siblings, sitter, etc.)
  • Refusal to leave comfort location because of fear of separation
  • Needing someone to take them from room to room in their own home
  • Refusal to sleep without parents or other attachment figures nearby
  • Physical symptoms like nausea, vomiting, and headaches related to anxiety or separation

If your child experiences severe symptoms of separation anxiety, you should consider talking with their pediatrician.

Helping a Child with Separation Anxiety

smiling father and daughter
Liderina/Shutterstock

There are few things more heart-wrenching than watching a child cry when they’re separated from a parent or loved one. However, this normal growing pain is a healthy transition for your child. Many children adjust to separation by the time they are two to three years old; for some, it takes longer.

If you feel like crying as much as your little one every time you head out the door, here are a few things you can do to make saying goodbye a little easier:

  • Reassure your child you will return: Before you have to leave (the night before if possible) remind your child that you have to leave for a little during the next day, but that you will come back. Let them know you’ll miss them as much as they miss you, but that going to work or going out is important too.
  • Be clear: Talk on your child’s level. Saying that you’ll be home at 5:00 might not mean much to a toddler. However, “I’ll be back after your second nap,” or “I’ll be back after snack time,” may be easier for them to understand.
  • Practice, practice, practice:  If you’re transitioning back into work after a long time off, or you’ll be leaving your little one for a few days while you head out of town, getting a bit of practice in beforehand can help. Keep initial “trips” to Grandma’s or the sitter’s a bit shorter and return when you say you will. Increase your time gone by a little bit every time you leave. Your little one will learn that you will come back.
  • Maintain consistency: Maintain consistency as much as possible. Choose a regular sitter or family member to watch your child when you leave. If you can, allow the sitter to come to your home or let your child bring a favorite toy or another item with them when they go away from home.
  • Have a goodbye routine: Create a unique handshake or turn around and wave whenever you get to the corner. Keep it quick, but consistent, so your little one has something to look forward to
  • Say goodbye and go: One of the hardest parts of leaving is not picking your child up and kissing them a hundred times while they cry. Give them a proper goodbye with hugs and love, tell them you’ll be back, and then leave. (You can cry in the car as you drive away). You’re not mean; you are letting them see that you know they’ll be okay.
  • When you pick them up: After hugs and kisses, ask them how their day was. Ask them to tell you all about the fun things they got to do, the yummy snacks they had to eat, and the fun songs they got to sing. Focus on their positive experiences (of course addressing any concerns or fears they had). Keeping them excited about staying with their sitter can help ease the transition too.
  • Distract: If you are the caregiver and a child is having separation issues, try to distract the little one with a toy, snacks, songs, or another fun activity. If the child asks about their parents, succinctly tell them “Mommy (or Daddy, Grandma, etc.) will be back as soon as they are done working,” and redirect their attention to an activity.

Separation anxiety is a normal part of growing up. Your child is learning what they like and what they don’t. The fear is a good sign that they are comfortable at home and with their parent. Staying consistent and reassuring your little one that you’ll come back are the best ways to help make this transition easier for parent and child!

Angela Brown Angela Brown
Angela has 14 years of writing and editing experience, including as a reporter and copy editor for two newspapers. Angela has a Bachelor's in communication with minors in creative and technical writing from BYU-Idaho. She works closely with real-estate and financial industry clients. Read Full Bio »

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