If your toddler is having a hard time with separations, she’s right on schedule. Babies as young as six months can begin to experience separation anxiety — and a child’s fear that her caretaker won’t return can last well into toddlerhood, too. For many kids, the year-and-a-half mark is when the distress over leaving mom or dad reaches maximum intensity.
Separation anxiety isn’t something you need to fix. It’s a natural part of attachment, and it’s even built into your little one’s nervous system to keep her safe by keeping you close. Indeed, it makes a lot of evolutionary sense that the clinging, following, and distress cries are firing on all cylinders at this age — this is the stage of development when your baby has the motor skills to get away from you, but still doesn’t have the self-help skills to be okay on her own. Think of the caveman days, where dangerous elements like poisonous bushes always lurked in toddling range (this is also why your formerly indiscriminate eater may all of a sudden start a picky-eating streak).
If you’re having trouble with a toddler who gets distressed when you leave her with another person (or even in the next room for that matter), consider these ideas:
1. Decide on a ritual. If the distress is around a nanny hand-off or daycare drop-off, come up with a quick ritual and let your toddler know clearly what it will be. For example, when driving to daycare, talk about what will happen and what the exact last steps of the goodbye will be:
So, we’ll say hi to our friends and teachers, and then look around and pick a toy (are you thinking about playing with a fire truck, or the baby strollers?). Then mommy will give you a big hug and a kiss, and I’ll come back later to pick you up.
Kids find comfort in rituals, so if your little person is struggling with saying goodbye, try to keep it as consistent as possible so she learns to trust it and know exactly what to expect. As tempting as it might be to leave while your toddler is distracted, don’t sneak out. You’re building trust with your toddler so she feels comfortable with your comings and goings. Make sure the goodbye is obvious.
2. Be clear. It’s tempting to linger, re-hug, or play one more game, but your best bet is to stick to the ritual and leave swiftly, even if there is protest in your wake. Your child is now in the hands of a competent and loving caregiver, spouse, friend, or other family member, so it’s important to clearly pass the responsibility. If you come back and soothe your child, it can make the next separation harder.
— Ilana Wiles
— Serge Bielanko
— Cassandra Barry
3. Match your child’s emotional tone. In our efforts to be peppy and make our kids feel better about separations, sometimes we miss an opportunity to make emotional contact. Of course you want to convey the message that everything will be okay, but if you “play dumb” or pretend that all is just swell, it might make your toddler feel like you don’t see her distress. In that case, she might dial it up, or stuff it down and pretend all is good — either way is a less-than-optimal outcome.
Instead of enthusiastically telling your toddler: Oh, you’re okay. You’re going to have fun — you love daycare/your babysitter!
Consider something like: You’re feeling like you don’t want to leave mommy this morning? I hear that. It’s hard to say goodbye (or, it’s hard to start the day sometimes). If feel that way, too. I wish I could stay with you! Let’s think about what we could do when I get back.
4. Help with the transition. If you’re handing off baby responsibilities to someone in your home or at a friend’s place, help the transition along by joining with the other person over a favorite activity. For example, when the babysitter arrives, sit down with him or her and your child to play for a bit. All three of you can work the shape sorter while you relay any information you need to. Your toddler is picking up on your attitude towards the other person, so if you’re confident and calm during the separation, it will help.
5. Leave something. If you’re dropping your child off somewhere, see if you can leave the daycare, friend, or family member with a picture of you and your spouse with your child. At home, let a caregiver know if your child likes to squeeze a certain stuffed animal or look at pictures if she needs comfort when you’re gone.
6. Tell stories. It really helps our kids make sense of the world when we talk about social interactions or daily happenings as little stories after an event is over or the day is done. In the re-hashing, a toddler’s brain is aided just a bit in figuring out how to process and code the confusing aspects of the day. Depending on your child’s age and mood, you may not get any input or response, but don’t doubt that she is listening intently; it will make for smoother separations in the future if she has mini stories of how they start and end to think about. For example, on the way home from daycare:
So this morning mommy said goodbye and you spent time with friends and teachers — you had a whole day of activities! And I was thinking about you a lot during the day. Then I drove up and came in and I saw you playing tea party. I was so excited to see you, and I scooped you up and gave you a big kiss! That’s what happened, and now we’re together and I’m so happy to see you!
Or in the case of a smaller separation with another caregiver:
What a day! You were with grandma, and it seemed like you really didn’t want mommy to leave, you wanted me to stay, huh? Sometimes I have to leave, but I always come back. Mommies always come back.
Again, the goal isn’t to make separation anxiety go away. Every child is wired differently, and some kids’ temperaments naturally make for more emotional goodbyes. The point is that over time, little kids develop other trusting relationships and internalize the safe feeling of knowing you are there even when you’re not physically there. That takes practice and repetition (remember, your child is a scientist who needs lots of data to draw conclusions), so don’t be afraid if it’s a bumpy process.