To reduce separation anxiety don’t avoid separating from your toddler, practice separating in playful ways, begin using baby sitters while you are still in the house, be consistent with drop-offs, and develop calming bedtime routines.
It is normal for toddlers to become anxious and clingy with a parent when being separated from their parent. It’s also normal for a parent to become a bit anxious and upset being separated from their toddler.
Crying, screaming, pleading, and clinging are common symptoms of separation anxiety in a toddler.
Parents often endure these upsetting behaviors when leaving their toddler with a baby sitter, dropping their child off at daycare, and in some cases leaving them at preschool.
Although very normal, separation anxiety can be difficult for parents to handle.
Understanding what your toddler is going through and having a few coping strategies ready can help both of you get through it.
What is Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Separation anxiety disorder goes beyond normal developmental separation anxieties.
It is considered a developmentally inappropriate and excessive fear of separation from a loved one or attachment figure.
This means that the symptoms may be seen in children past the age of 3 when most children would have out grown normal separation anxiety.
The symptoms must be significant enough to interfere with social and school functioning.
What are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety Disorder?
Recurring distress or anticipatory anxiety when separating from a major attachment figure, such as a parent.
Excessively worrying about losing the attachment figure through illness, natural disasters, or death.
Worry about being kidnaped, lost, or somehow taken away from an attachment figure.
Refusal or reluctance to go to school, sleep away from home, or leave home for any other reason because of fear of separation.
Repeated nightmares of separation.
Repeated physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches, nausea, and vomiting.
A child may be reluctant to go to bed unless a parent is present.
Risk Factors for Separation Anxiety Disorder
Environment: Children can develop separation anxiety disorder after any kind of major change such as the death of a close family member or pet, a recent move to a new school, divorce, and illness.
Genetics: It has been estimated that separation anxiety disorder has a 73% heritability rate and with girls being at higher risk.
Risk Factors for Normal Separation Anxiety
“Normal separation anxiety” can develop in children between the ages of 8 months and 2 years. This may be observed anytime a parent is not present or the child is left with a baby sitter or daycare for the first time.
A child may even become anxious to be left alone in a room within the home. Kids may wish to follow their parents from room to room, giving their parents no privacy.
Nap time and bed time can become challenging as your child’s anxiety increases over the fear of this type of separation. The anxiety will then cause a heightened state of arousal and keep them awake longer.
What Causes Separation Anxiety?
Evolutionary Biological Defense: At birth children are programed for survival.
Common fears such as fear of the dark, fear of getting lost, and fear of being separated from a parent all work to deter the child from going to unfamiliar and possibly dangerous territory before they have developed the necessary skills to navigate these environments without their parents.
In the very early days of human kind it was not safe to be alone. Being alone left you very vulnerable to being attacked and eaten by predators.
Cognitive Development: Between the ages of 8 and 12 months babies start to understand the important concept of Object Permanence.
Object permanence is the awareness that people and other things still exist when those things are out of sight.
Prior to this developmental stage, babies think their favorite toy is gone for good when it is hidden under a blanket. This is also why peekaboo is fun for babies.
Object permanence means that they have developed the ability to visualize things that are not physically present.
Babies begin to realize that mommy still exists after she’s gone away and because babies also do not have a sense of “time” they don’t know when or if mommy will come back or be gone forever, and they want her back immediately.
5 Effective Ways to Help your Toddler with Separation Anxiety
1. Don’t avoid separation
As parents we sometimes unknowingly reinforce our child’s fear by enabling them to avoid being separated from us.
An example is giving in to cries at night and allowing them to avoid sleeping alone. This may look like allowing the child to sleep in the parent’s bedroom or bed.
This just confirms that the child’s bedroom is a dangerous place without the parent and the only safe place is with the parent and in the parent’s bed. They come to our bedroom at night because they need help with their fear.
Avoidance just prolongs the fear and interferes with the child’s ability to learn to fall asleep securely.
2. Practice separating
Play hide and seek within the same room and then expand to other rooms.
Tell your child when you are leaving the room, go into an adjacent room, and continue talking to your child or count to 10 and then return to the child’s room. If your child can count, have her count to see how long your bathroom break is.
Don’t just sneak out. Always tell your child when you are leaving the room and that you will be right back. Maybe even tell her what you will be doing, such as going to the restroom.
Your child will quickly learn that mommy always comes back the more you practice, especially if you make a game out of it.
3. Ease in new baby sitters
Ease the concept of a sitter by having the new sitter play with and care for your child for a few hours while you are home. Use this time to complete household tasks or to take a nap.
Transition to leaving your child home with the baby sitter by explaining where you are going, that you will be back, and what your child and baby sitter could do together.
Allow baby sitters to make things fun by providing treats and fun play activities.
4. Be consistent with drop offs
Talk to your child about what is going to happen. Create a pre-drop off routine that gives your child a sense of control. What things do they need to bring and carry?
Tell your child what the plan is for when you come back later and pick them up. Then stick to those plans such as going out to dinner or getting ice cream as a reward.
Be calm and loving. Say goodbye with a kiss and a hug and promptly leave without coming back. Allow daycare or school staff to redirect and calm your child. Coming back will only prolong the crying.
Allow your child to use a transitional object such as a stuffed animal, a family picture, or a shirt that smells like mommy or daddy. This can provide comfort after you leave.
5. Create a calming bedtime routine
Kids may be more anxious at bed time and fear falling asleep because they lose conscious contact with their parents or they wake up from a bad dream and find themselves alone.
To help ease bedtime:
Create a soothing bedtime routine with music night, a night light, and a favorite stuffed animal.
It’s ok to have some cuddle time of maybe 5 or 10 minutes.
Be calm and confident even if you are feeling anxious yourself.
Teach your child relaxation skills such as deep breathing. “Take a deep breath, fill up your lungs, and hold your breath for a count of 2. Then forcefully blow the air out. Do this 5 times.”
Don’t sneak out. Wait until your child is asleep or gently say “Goodnight” and tell your child you will come back to check on her after your shower or some other task. Then follow through with your promise and actually come back and check. You can time yourself. Start with 5 minutes and increase the time as you go and your child learns to fall asleep without you in the room.
Remember that this is a developmental stage that occurs between the ages of 8 months to 2 years.
It is also common for separation anxiety to reoccur with older children when there is a change in their environment (school, home), a change in the child’s routine, or a change in the parent’s routine.
Trust your instincts. If your child shows more anxiety and refuses to go to a specific babysitter or daycare center and is not anxious about being dropped off at other places or with other people, there could be a problem with that specific childcare situation.
It’s always a good idea to consult your child’s pediatrician when there is any change in mood or behavior and to follow up with the pediatricians recommendations.
Seek consultation with a mental health professional if any of the following occur:
Symptoms continue long after the parent has left the child.
More severe symptoms persist (such as panic attacks, nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath).
Excessive fear of sleeping alone.
Nightmares about separation.
Excessive worry about being lost or kidnapped or worry about something terrible happening to their parent.
Refusal to go to school.