How to Ease Your Toddler’s Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is often just a phase...here's how to help your child into the next phase of life.

Alain had always been an outgoing baby. Smiley, chatty and playful, he was as happy charming strangers queued at Starbucks as he was visiting his aunt or playing beside other children at the neighbourhood moms’ group. When the time came for Alain’s mom, Lauren, to return to work, they transitioned to daycare slowly. “We stayed together for the first visit, I sat at a nearby coffee shop for hour two of his second visit and in a week we had transitioned to full days. Everything seemed to be seamless,” the Ottawa mom remembers. But after a few months, 18-month-old Alain started having meltdowns. “As soon as I plopped him inside the toddler room door and turned to leave, his little arms would reach up and the “Maman, Maman’ sobs would start.”

Worries often increase around 18 months, says Dr. Harvey Karp, author of The Happiest Toddler on the Block: How to Eliminate Tantrums and Raise a Patient, Respectful and Cooperative One- to Four-Year-Old (Bantam). “A simple experience that was never a problem before, like meeting a new person, can suddenly snowball into panic.” Separation anxiety is an age-appropriate acknowledgment of how important your bond is; it ebbs and flows and is best addressed with consistency.

Whether your little cling-on is heading off to child care or going to Grandma’s for the day, using the same troubleshooting techniques will smooth caregiver transitions. Here’s how:

Set the right tone

Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution (McGraw-Hill), suggests that waking up with enough time to get ready is essential to a good start. “If you’re rushing to the car, your child really hasn’t had time to adjust and adapt,” she says. “If the mornings are calmer and have a predictable rhythm, that peacefulness will permeate the day.” That was part of the solution for Gill, who realized that not giving Alex mommy time left him grouchy before he even had his coat on.

This is also a good time to encourage his independence, notes Pantley. “Often, a child will go off and play with a toy by himself and we’ll interrupt, saying, “Wow, what a great job.’ If he’s happy and engaged, letting him have those moments to himself will teach him that you don’t always have to be there.”

Plan your drop-off

Just as you want to have enough time to get ready, allowing your child time to get engaged with a caregiver or an activity before you rush off to work or for a night out helps with drop-offs. Both Karp and Pantley also recommend sending your child with a transitional item, such as a lovey or a “magic” bracelet. “The day I gave a magic bracelet to my son,” says Pantley, “all the problems went away.” Toddlers are really into mimicry, so wear the plastic or rubber bangle prominently on your wrist for a few days before presenting her with it, and explain that the bracelet is like a little piece of you for her to wear when you’re away.

Be patient with pick ups

When Sandra’s son, Leo, was 18 months old, his clinginess came at the end of the day. “From the moment he saw me, he only wanted to be held,” says the Toronto mom. “I would dread picking him up, and cooking dinner was a struggle.” Parenting expert Alyson Schafer, a family-focused psychotherapist and author of Honey, I Wrecked the Kids: When Yelling, Screaming, Threats, Bribes, Time-outs, Sticker Charts and Removing Privileges All Don’t Work (Wiley), says that we forget that expecting toddlers to wait patiently for our attention after being away all day is unrealistic. “Change your evening routine to include a snack and 15 minutes of playtime together, where you are fully focused and present, and find jobs for your toddler to do to help with dinner and be involved with you.”

Calming the cling

So how do you know if she is truly unhappy? Children are far more flexible than we realize and tend to respond to daily events by following our cues. If you act like something is a big deal, she will get stressed accordingly, says Pantley. And though the strongly attached child may need a firmer routine and longer to adjust, it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks. If the unrest persists, trust your instincts and look into finding a different sitter or child care provider.

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