Separation Anxiety

Dreading leaving your toddler with the babysitter or at daycare?

Virtually every parent who has left a toddler with a caregiver has experienced the crumpled face, velcro-locked arms and the wail that rips through your heart.

It’s the normal response of a securely attached toddler who protests what he/she perceives as a life-threatening separation from parents. Your toddler will learn, over time, that you do return when you leave, but he/she is not yet capable of understanding this fully.

Toddlers are designed to spend their time with humans to whom they’re attached: parents, siblings, grandparents, etc. Until your child has attached to a caregiver and can rely on the caregiver to meet needs, he/she won’t feel completely safe. So, your task is to find ways to help your child bond with the caregiver, and to help the caregiver understand your child.

Here are some steps to smooth the process.

  1. Facilitate your toddler’s bonding with the caregiver. How do you facilitate a great relationship? First, let your child have good experiences with the caregiver in your presence. Second, relate warmly to the caregiver in your toddler’s presence. Third, by speaking with enthusiasm to your child about the caregiver.
  2. Help your toddler get comfortable in the new situation. Invest in making this experience work for your toddler by spending some time with your child and the caregiver before you ever leave them alone. Facilitate your toddler’s bonding other kids as well as the caregiver. The minute he/she gets engaged in something, try to take a back seat, nearby but not engaged.
  3. Start with short separations. After your child feels comfortable with this new situation, practice leaving him for a short time. If you start with short absences, your toddler will learn more quickly that you always return, and can gradually get used to the separations as you gradually extend your absences. Try not to return while your child is crying. He/she will think crying can bring you back, and it will be hard to give up that strategy!
  4. Develop a daily routine. Be creative! Read a quick story, give hugs or come up with a “parting phrase”. Stick to your routine every day and resist the urge to either extend it or cut it short. It will help your toddler to know exactly what to expect.
  5. Leave a comfort object. Give your child a “lovey”, blanket or item that he/she might already have a secure attachment to for comfort.
  6. Do not sneak out. It will make separation anxiety worse in the long run. It will make her separation anxiety worse in the long run. When she bursts into tears, say calmly. Let you child know that you are leaving and will be back soon. Then leave. Resist the urge to run back and grab your crying child. It may take him/her weeks to start waving to you, but you should always wave to her. Hide your own distress to signal your confidence that your child can handle this separation by being matter of fact.
  7. Discuss in advance what the caregiver can do to comfort/distract your toddler. It is important your toddler feel comforted by the caregiver so you want someone who is comfortable with a crying child. Make sure the caregiver is willing to try different things until your child is calm.

Opt for situations where your toddler will have the same caregiver most of the time. When a child has an opportunity to securely attach with the caregiver, the stress on the child is lessened. Give yourself a break as a parent. Your child will eventually spread his/her wings. Independence may take time to achieve, but isn’t difficult if you remember to breathe and remind yourself that everything will be okay!

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