Easing Separation Anxiety for Your Toddler

by Kathleen Cuneo

My two-year-old does not separate well from me. In the past I've left her for short periods of time with her grandparents and at my gym's daycare, but she just cries the whole time. I'm worried what it will be like if I leave her for longer periods to go to work. Please help!

about to burst into tearsIt's important to recognize that all children experience their world uniquely and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That said, let's first look at what to expect developmentally.

Most infants begin to recognize the difference between familiar and unfamiliar people at around six months old, when they develop object permanence, or the cognitive ability to recognize that something exists even when it's not in sight. This is usually when the first signs of anxiety in the presence of strangers might occur. Babies experience this anxiety to varying degrees.

Often when children become mobile, around 12-18 months, they may experience a great increase in anxiety when separated from their caregivers. Some children are more predisposed to anxiety than others, especially if there is a history of anxiety in the family. You need to consider your child's individual history with past separations as well as your family history as you move forward.

When dealing with a child experiencing anxiety at separations, there are several things parents can do.

  1. Take care in choosing the person you will leave your child with while you are separated. Knowing your child will help guide your choice. If your child is very sensitive to loud noises, a boisterous, loud caregiver could likely increase your child's anxiety. Look for a good personality match, and if a familiar adult is available, it can help reduce some of your child's anxiety.

  2. If your child does not already know your chosen caregiver, let her get to know this person in your presence first. Allow your child to see that you like this person and that you feel confident that your child will enjoy being with her (or him).

  3. When possible, gradually build up the duration of the separation periods. Try leaving your child with the caregiver for short periods of time before you leave her for a whole work day.

  4. Always say goodbye. While it may seem easier to avoid the potential tears and just sneak out, sneaking out undermines your child's trust in you. Always say goodbye, and always tell her that you'll be back. With repetition, she will learn to believe you and trust you.

  5. Make your goodbyes brief. It's natural to feel upset when your child is upset, and you may be inclined to stay longer to try to comfort her when you're trying to get out the door. In most cases, it's best to try to stay positive, encourage your child to have a good time, offer reassurances about your return, and leave.

  6. Look at your own reactions and behaviors. Children are very good at picking up on their parents' emotions. Your own feelings about the separation may be fueling your child's reaction. If your child has any worries about you and how you'll be without them, they will usually not separate well.

  7. Provide your child with some type of transitional object, whether it's their favorite blanket or stuffed animal, a photo of you and her together, or something of yours that reminds her of you (like a scarf or piece of inexpensive jewelry).

  8. If the situation is still not working, you might need to reexamine and reassess each of these components to determine why it's not working. If you're having trouble improving the situation on your own, you might want to consider exploring options for help (e.g., a local child psychologist or social worker or a parent coach).

Kathleen Cuneo, Ph.D. is a psychologist, parent coach, and mom. Her mission is to empower parents to find their own parenting voice and develop strong connections with their children. Her free report, "30 Things You Can Do To Raise Self-Confident, Compassionate Children," is available at her site. Dr. Cuneo is also the director of Dinner Together, LLC. Her free e-newsletter offers consultation to families seeking to have more frequent, successful family meals and deal with the challenges of picky eaters.

Copyright © Kathleen Cuneo. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.