Separation Anxiety and Toddlers

David dreaded it. He was expected to give a presentation in one hour. Battling traffic was the easy part. Talking in front of 100+ potential clients? No sweat! Getting past "toddler separation meltdown" however... Sara dreaded it. Even though she knows that developmentally Brina can't understand daddy will be back, and is grieving and angry, it does feel like rejection when she sobs, "I want Daddy!"

Separation AnxietyDavid and Sara aren't alone.

Parents across the world all share this same struggle -- whether they are heading out to work, a rare "dinner out," even attempting to go to the bathroom!

It can become even more exasperated for the non-primary caregiver when their parenting partner must be away for an extended period of time.

What's a parent to do?

Obviously having your child as an attachment 24/7 is not only impossible but isn't the healthiest choice for either the parent or child.

Once in a while you do need to "go" after all!

Hopefully these will make the journey through separation anxiety faster and easier for your toddler -- and for you!

What Is Separation Anxiety?

As long as their needs are met, babies younger than 6 months are generally content with any caregiver.

Parents probably feel more anxiety about being separated than infants do!

Then your little one develops a sense of object permanence. He learns that things and people exist even when they're out of sight.

When your baby can't see you, that means you've gone away. Yikes!

Since most toddlers don't understand the concept of time, he probably doesn't know if or when you'll come back.

Whether you're making lunch in the kitchen or at the office, it's the same to him. You have disappeared and he'll do what he can to prevent that from happening -- often by refusing the attention of other caregivers, melting down into tears and clinging to your leg the next time you try to leave.

Separation anxiety usually resolves once a child begins to understand the concept of time (Daddy will be back after lunch).

Although stressful, separation anxiety demonstrates that your baby has formed a healthy, loving attachment to you. He associates pleasure, comfort, and security with your presence.

It also indicates that your baby is developing intellectually.

The timing of separation anxiety can vary widely. Some kids may go through it beginning at 7 months; some later, between 18 months and 2½ years of age; and some never experience it.

Leaving Your Toddler

If your toddler is upset by good-byes try these tips.

Play games like "peek-a-boo" and "oh here it is!"

Talk to your child about being separated. While your toddler might not have a large vocabulary, she understand more than you might think she do. It will help him to cope if you reassure her by explaining what will happen. Let her know where you will be going, what you'll be doing, and how long you'll be gone. But don't stop there! Go on to the fun she will be having. "You'll have a snack and go to the park, then you'll get to play with playdoh...

Encourage your child to have a "lovey." A transitional objects such as a blanket or soft toy can be a comfort to her when she's separated from you.

Try not to leave your child when she's tired or hungry. This will just make her more likely to cry.

Don't sneak away. Even though this might make it easier for you now, it will make her separation anxiety worse in the long run. If you continue to sneak off, they’ll become even more worried that you might disappear at any time, making it difficult for you to walk from one room of your house to another!

Leave quickly. Demonstrate your confidence in the caregiver by handing off your little one and leaving. Give your child a kiss and say something upbeat like "See you later," or "Be back after lunch," and get out.

Follow through on promises. It's important to make sure that you return when you promised. This is how your child will develop the confidence that he or she can make it through the time apart.

When Mom (or Dad) Won't Do

Many babies go through a stage of attaching themselves to one parent or the other. During toddlerhood, she doesn't really understand that her Daddy or Mommy will return. She is likely to experience their absence almost like a death because to her it is. She doesn't know they will be back.

If one parent will be gone for an extended period, the other will need to be especially patient.

It can feel like a rejection to have the child sobbing "I want Daddy" or "I want Mommy!" But if Mom can realize that developmentally the child just can't understand that daddy or mommy will be back, and is grieving and angry, it will help.


Talk with your toddler every day. The absent parent can talk every day on skype or some other free online application with video. She may be angry afterwards but it will teach her that daddy or mommy is still there in some way so she still feels connected.

Create a book with photos of her and the parent. Make a laminated book with photos and words. Add such words like "Daddy loves Baby. Baby misses Daddy. Daddy misses Baby. Daddy ALWAYS comes back" and show Daddy hugging her at the end so she gets that he will return and hug her.

Record the parent interacting with the toddler, including Daddy singing goodnight, reading a bedtime story, saying good morning, or just reassuring her. Remember that hearing his voice might make her mad, because she misses him so much, at least in the beginning.

The more her routine can be the same, the better. If Mommy always put her to bed she will miss her but if Dad can follow the same routine, it helps. Dad can hold her while there is a tape of Mommy singing goodnight to her. Again, she is sad but comforted.

Say good-bye to him. The baby will cry and scream when Dad leaves if he is awake, and he will cry if she wakes up and he is gone. It is probably better that Dad says goodbye and hugs him and then Mom holds him while he cries. I know that is hard on both parents. Gradually this will get better.

Leave a little something. If the parent regularly leaves when the toddler is asleep, it could affect her sleep so that she wakes up more to check if he is still there. When Dad has to leave before she gets up, leave her a note, a little drawing, something. The good news is that she will get closer to the other parent.

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