7 Tips that Will Help You Ease Separation Anxiety in Your Toddler

Separation anxiety is a common problem in kids. Although the hardest time for you to leave your child is during infancy, the fact of the matter is that children under 6 months old can do just fine without you (in case they aren’t nursing). This is because kids that age don’t understand the concept of object permanence – that you exist even when you’re not with them. 

However, things are different with children who are 7 to 8 months old – they know you’re out there even when you leave, thereby making them more prone to separation anxiety. To be honest, it’s quite natural for your child to feel a little anxious when you say goodbye to him. Like it or not, no matter how tough it is, separation anxiety is largely considered by experts a normal stage of child development. 

The good part, however, is that it can be relieved with a bit of understanding and the addition of a few strategies. Moreover, this issue will probably fade once your child starts getting older. However, you need to bear in mind that if anxieties intensify or are persistent enough to get in the way of school or other activities, your child may have separation anxiety disorder. 

This condition may require professional treatment—but there’s also a lot that you as a parent can do to help. Here are a few things you can do to ease your child’s separation anxiety:

7 Re-assure Your Child Before Saying Goodbye

Irrespective of whether you’re leaving your child at home with Grandma or dropping him off at daycare, the fact of the matter is that saying goodbye to him is going to be tough. Your toddler now understands object permanence and knows that you exist even if you can’t be heard or seen. With that, he needs you to reassure him each time you leave that you will come back to him. 

The best means of doing so is to play simple games with him. For instance, you could start playing a bit of peekaboo with your kid and then move on to bye-bye games. For the latter game, just say “bye bye” to your child, hide behind a chair and then pop out all of a sudden. This is basically going to involve a whole lot more separation as compared to peekaboo. Once done, you can finally move on to playing hide-and-seek as well with your little one.

Now when the time comes for you to leave your child for real, give him a little warning in advance that his sitter is going to arrive or that he will be dropped off somewhere. With that out of the way, make sure that your goodbye is brief too. If you keep returning to him for ‘another hug’ or act anxious, she will probably sense that there is something for her to be worried about. 

A brief ritual

It’s also recommended for you to avoid sneaking out on her as it will only make her worry that you might disappear without warning, hence adding to her clinginess.

To make the process simpler, it is best for you to develop an extremely brief ritual for times when you have to say goodbye. You could tell her that you will be back after work, that you love him and then give him a quick hug before leaving. Moreover, it is best for you to keep farewells the same each time.

6 Don’t Get Lost in a Crowd

Just the thought of going to a large gathering can provoke a lot of anxiety in your child as he will be scared of losing you in the crowd. Going to a large gathering means your child will come across a lot of unfamiliar faces, which is why it’s necessary for you to refrain from pushing him to interact or run off to play without you – at least until he starts taking an interest in others. If truth be told, it‘s best for you to just follow your child’s lead. 

While you’re at it, refrain from wandering off and leaving his sight even if he lets someone else entertain him for a while. Even if your child accepts being held by someone else for a bit, there’s a good chance that he may change his mind the next minute and want to be with you.

If you push your child beyond his limits, the one thing you can be sure of is that the next group situation is going to be more difficult. Scoop your child up if you notice him getting upset and try not to stress out even if you have to keep him by your side the whole time. Remember, the support you offer him is going to make him feel even more comfortable in future social settings.

Do not leave with a negative attitude

The fact of the matter is that you’re like a mirror to your child and he can ‘feel’ what you’re feeling. If you appear unhappy to your child when leaving him, it’s just going to reinforce his anxiety. However, if you leave him with your chin up, your child will know that everything is alright and may not be as anxious.

5 It Takes Practice

To get your child used to being away from you, it’s highly recommended for you to ship your child off to his grandma’s home for a bit, schedule regular play dates and allow other family members and friends to look after him over the weekends, even if it’s just for an hour. While you’re at it, practice going to school along with your brief goodbye ritual even before your child starts going to preschool or childcare. 

To put it in simple words, just give your kid a chance so he can prepare himself for being away from you and thrive while he’s at it. It’s also necessary for you to build anticipation in your child so that he stays excited about things even if it involves being without you for a while.

Irrespective of whether you’re sending your child to the zoo with Uncle Mike or off to Nana’s house to bake cookies, make sure that you keep emphasizing on how much fun he is going to have while you’re gone. But while you’re at it, you should also acknowledge his anxiety by tell him that it’s alright for him to miss you and that he could give Grandma a big hug if that happens.

Tell him what to expect

Your child needs to learn that he can trust you. For this reason, it is extremely important for you to forecast what he should expect and then do exactly as you said you would. Do not skip on giving an explanation to your child just because you think he is too young to understand. The tone you speak in and your attitude is going to go a long way in helping him understand things.

4 Help Him Sleep

Separation anxiety is known to reach its peak at times when parents transition their kids into the babysitter’s care or into daycare. However, it can also have an impact on your child’s sleep. To begin with, it can damage your baby’s nap schedule and even make him wake up frequently during the night. This is fairly logical considering that a baby who is experiencing a case of separation anxiety would not want to nap or sleep at night by himself.

Toddlers typically feel very anxious if they’re left to sleep at night or take a nap alone in their room during the day. The thing is that these are the longest stretches of time for which he will be left alone, for which reason it’s necessary for you to try to relax him by following a bedtime ritual. For instance, start with giving him a bath and then move on to a story or sing a song to him. 

A few pointers

This bedtime routine will go a long way in terms of helping him ease into the notion that bedtime is coming – that he is now going to be alone. It’s also recommended for you to give him a lovey to hold onto during the night and turn on some soothing sounds for him.

If your toddler wakes up from a nap and you find him playing happily in his crib, then it’s best for you to refrain from rushing in to get him. Let him experience what it is like to be by himself and have a good time.

3 A Comfort Object is Much-needed

Giving your child something that belongs to you, like a scarf, will help him in comforting himself with it. However, there’s still the chance that he may just throw it on the floor the moment you leave and scream out for you. But no matter the outcome, try to leave something of yours behind with him even if it’s just a picture or an unwashed T-shirt of yours.

When my son Ibrahim was an infant, my wife took on a habit of leaving him one of her previously worn shirts that smelt like her for him to cuddle with during naps. If one wasn’t available, she’d leave a previous lovie that he really liked. Also, when the time came for him to be left at his daycare, we left behind family pictures with him, which worked wonders in terms of calming him down. 

So if you have to leave your child alone for a while, make sure he has a comfort object that he can associate with you and stay calm.

Sad faces and crying are a major no-no

Even if you’re bawling on the inside, make sure that you keep a cheery appearance in front of your kid when saying goodbye. Remember, your child can pick up on everything, which deems it necessary for you to give off a calm and easy vibe so he can stay relaxed too.

2 People Return – Help Him Learn This

You need to help your child learn that what disappears isn’t gone forever and can reappear. To teach him this, play games like hiding and finding a loved object, or Peek a Boo with him. Also, you could play Hide and Seek with him for this purpose, but when you do, make sure you hide in a place where he can easily find you.There are quite a few books out there that can help you in getting your child to learn about separation and return. 

For instance, there’s Oh My Baby Little One by Kathi Appelt – a truly fabulous book that is focused on leaving your baby at daycare. You should also read The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn to your child to help him understand separation and return. Just so you know, this wonderful book is about a raccoon who wants to stay back at home instead of going to school – come to think of it, the story of the book may even match your child’s wishes. 

A few other books for you to read with your child

Reading out books to your little one can go a long way in helping him grasp the concept of separation. Once he understands that you will return after a short period of separation, there’s a good chance that his anxiety levels will reduce significantly. A few other books that you can read out to him for this purpose include Mama Always Comes Home by Karma Wilson and Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman.

1 Inform the Caregiver About What She Can Do to Comfort Your Toddler

It’s extremely important for your toddler to feel comforted by his caregiver. For this reason, make sure that you get someone who feels comfortable with a crying child without just trying to shush him down. Yes, she may be able to distract him temporarily, but in the long-term, your child should be able to express his desolation at your departure. With that, he should also have someone who understands him to step in, hold him close and tell him that he is safe. 

Distraction by itself is not going to work all the time – your toddler needs someone to communicate to him that he is safe. However, it’s necessary for you to bear in mind that caregivers typically have multiple children to look after. For this reason, you will have to take an active part in your child’s ‘emotional processing’ over the weekends or at night. 

Also, eventually it will be down to the caregiver to help your child move on from unhappiness to accepting the fact that there are quite a few fun things for him to do even if mommy isn’t around. This is why it’s also recommended for you to take the time to plan out a few distractions to assist your child in calming himself down and shifting gears from sad to happy.

Choose your caregiver wisely

It’s important for you to choose a caregiver who you know will keep on trying till the time she finds something that will soothe your toddler. She must continue to hold him until he calms down – and if she can get him started on a fun activity, it will be even better!

More in Did You Know...