Dealing with Separation Anxiety in Toddlers

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Separation anxiety is an extremely worrying and frightening experience for any child coming to grips with being left without their parents for the first time. When you think of it from the point of view of a child, they have no idea if you’re going to come back. They feel abandoned, hence the anxiousness and panic they may display. Separation anxiety can occur any time from 6 months onwards but becomes more pronounced when your child begins spending longer periods away from home, such as when they go into day care, preschool or kindergarten.

Your baby is growing up, they’ve grown out of their entire collection of cute baby clothing and are taking the next step towards childhood. Separation anxiety is a common occurrence when they begin to grow older, wiser and more developed. It can be equally upsetting for parents as well as kids and it’s something you all have to learn to handle together.

Why does separation anxiety occur?

As already mentioned, it’s around 6 months when your baby realizes they can be left and it’s around this time that their brain has developed enough to deal with representational ideas. This means if you leave the room your baby can still picture you in their mind. As your baby heads towards toddlerhood, their independent streak is bound to form but they’re more than aware they still need your constant support for security. This can lead to fear and anxiety over the idea they’ll be left alone.

There’s no way of knowing if your child is going to suffer terribly from separation anxiety or breeze through being away from you without a care in the world. What can be guaranteed is that they will grow out of it, provided you work together to combat it head on. Most children will fully out grow separation anxiety by their third birthday.

The first step is to acknowledge the problem

Even though your toddler is very young, there is nothing to stop you from talking to them about how they feel. Explaining to them where you’re going, whether it be out to dinner with your partner or off to work, may help them understand why you’re going although it may not help with the illogical fear at the idea you’ll never return.

Look for patterns

If you monitor your child closely you may notice patterns in their behavior. Take note of situations where your child shows signs of becoming anxious – such as people who cause them particular stress, places that upset them such as day care or a certain relative’s home – and what behaviors are exhibited in their distress. You can also see if there are particular people or activities which capture your child’s attention. If they’re a bookworm they can settle down engrossed in their favorite story with your nanny or chosen guardian for the day. If there are particular toys or books which help your child feel settled ensure they take them with them if they’ll be staying with relatives or at a day care center.

Take things one step at a time

Before you leave your child for the day or evening, there are a number of steps to go through to help limit their separation anxiety. First, tell them calmly and reassuringly where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Make sure you stick to it as your child will be waiting for  you when you come back. Also, make sure you have enough time to spend a few minutes settling your child into their surroundings; within a few weeks they’ll be more than happy to be away from you, probably much to your dismay.

The worst things you can do is avoid the situation and/or attempt to sneak away. You’ll essentially be confirming the suspicion that you’re deserting them, making the anxiety worse. Similarly, bribing your child to stop crying or pleading with them to ‘be good’ is also a bad idea. It makes their feelings seem less valuable and also could set a precedent for future occasions, where they’ll always expect bribe.

Separation anxiety is difficult for children to come to grips with but eventually they will grow out of it. Many children eventually enjoy spending an adventurous night away with their grandparents or babysitter. It’s a difficult phase but with a little effort you can get through it together.

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