My son was about 1 year old when he started showing signs of separation anxiety. He started becoming clingy and snatchy. He would shed tears and sob, asking me to stay with him. In the beginning, it was so difficult for me to leave for the office. His tears and cries would simply fill my heart with sorrow. Thankfully, he had his grandma with him while I was gone, yet I was full of guilt all day long. Gradually, as I learned more about separation anxiety, I was able to handle it more capably. His separation anxiety gradually faded away by the time he turned 2.
If you are a mom of a toddler, you might be facing his clingy behavior. Let me assure you separation anxiety is a normal phase of development. In fact, it is the sign of a beautiful attachment that your child has developed with you.
By understanding why a child experiences separation anxiety and what the reasons are behind it, you will be able to establish better routines to help your child survive separation anxiety.
What is separation anxiety?
You might have noticed that a 3 or 4 month old child happily goes to unfamiliar adults. But as the child grows older, he starts showing anxiousness and resistance when separated from his mom or other caregivers. He might also become clingy or snatchy if an unfamiliar adult tries to take him from the parents or caregivers. This experience of feeling uncomfortable when separating from a familiar adult is called separation anxiety.
It is important to understand that separation anxiety is a normal phase of development. In most of the children, it gradually settles as the child grows older.
What causes separation anxiety in a toddler?
It is noteworthy that around 4 to 7 months of age, an infant gradually develops the concept of object permanence. Object permanence means that the child is able to develop a mental representation of the object. This is the time when a child starts looking for an object when it is taken from him.
You know that you are the most precious person to your infant. Once he develops object permanence, he starts to panic when you move out of his sight.
At 8 to 12 months of age, he is mentally not mature enough to realize that his mom or caregiver will come back again. He becomes clingy and fussy when his mother tries to go to another room or out of sight.
Some children overcome their separation anxiety soon, while for some it lingers on to pre-school years. Similarly, a few children exhibit mild reactions while others might act hysterically when separated from their parents.
The following factors can increase separation anxiety in a toddler:
- change in home environment,
- moving to an unfamiliar environment,
- interaction with an unfamiliar adult,
- over-protective parenting,
- stressful family environment, such as divorce,
- hunger, sleep deprivation, or health issues etc.
Effective strategies to handle separation anxiety in a toddler
1. Try separation at home
Try practicing separation with small, out of sight breaks, like going to another room. Make sure that your child is in a happy mood and playing when you leave the room. He will gradually learn that after going out, you do come back. Gradually increase the time of separation and let the child spend time with the other caregiver or adult in the home.
2. Expose her to other caregivers
Try alternating shifts with your spouse when taking your baby to nap or eat. Spending a few hours with grandparents, an aunt, or an uncle can also help him in learning to adapt to a change in caregiver.
3. Start with short separation breaks
Let your child develop the concept that once you are away, you do come back. Gradually leave your child with a caregiver for few hours. Once he learns to survive separation anxiety, you can increase the period of separation. You can also plan out of home separation break, like overnight stay at grandmother’s house.
4. Introduce unfamiliar adults in a familiar environment
Unfamiliar adults and unfamiliar environments can trigger separation anxiety in a child. To make the transition smooth, try to introduce unfamiliar adults, e.g. a babysitter, in the safe and familiar environment of your own home.
Make the first interaction slow and gradual. In a few children, an unfamiliar adult approaching hastily can elicit anxiety and fear.
5. Do not change your babysitter
I remember when my children were young, I was used to leaving them with their grandma. Gradually, they got used to spending certain hours of the day with her. It really made things easy for me.
Having the same caregiver over a period of time can save your child from frequent experiences of separation. If possible, try to keep same babysitter in early years of your child. It significantly helps in reducing separation anxiety.
6. Get your child familiar with new environments
Sometimes toddlers tend to experience severe anxiety when exposed to a new situation, especially a new environment. Try to get your child familiar with the new situation beforehand. For example, if a visit to a doctor is planned, try taking your child to the clinic before the appointment date. This pre-appointment visit will help him in getting comfortable with the surroundings.
7. Be honest and consistent
Try to keep your promises. When you promise your child that you will come back at 2 pm or before evening snack, make sure you come back on time.
8. Make sure your child is not hungry or sleepy
Make sure that you plan your parting time when your child is not hungry or sleepy. It is natural that child is in a bad mood when he is hungry or needs to sleep. Leaving your child at such a time will multiply his separation anxiety.
If you are a working mom, try to time your child’s sleeping routines around your schedule. If you leave for the office early in morning, make sure your baby goes to bed early. Spend quality morning time with your toddler, while feeding him his favorite nutritious food. By the time you get ready for your office, your child will be in a happy mood to say goodbye.
9. Keep goodbye time simple
It is never a good strategy to sneak out without letting your child know. It can be counterproductive as the child might become suspicious, more anxious, and clingier.
Properly inform your child that you are leaving, explain when you will come back and say goodbye. Try to make goodbye time quick and smooth. Longer parting rituals mean increased anxiety, resulting in tears or tantrums.
10. Leave him with a toy buddy
Try to leave your child with objects that sooth or comfort him. It can be a soft toy or blanket. Having a buddy or comforting object around will help in subsiding anxious feelings.
11. Make meeting time exciting
Try to plan a fun activity at the end of separation period. It can be, “We will watch cartoons together,” “We will go out to pick your brother from school,” or “We will do coloring together.” This way the child has something exciting to look forward to and it also makes separation time easy.
12. Spend quality time
When you are home, give your full attention to your child. Spend quality time with him and try to involve him in your daily chores. Try to inculcate a sense of responsibility in your toddler. Those children who learn to be independent tend to be less clingy and fussy.
13. Have a drop off routine at daycare
If your toddler is going to daycare, things might get a little messy at the dropping off time. If you feel that your child is less clingy with one of his parents, let that parent drop him off at the daycare.
- Use interesting cutters and lunch boxes to make him an interesting lunch.
- Let him take his one favorite toy with him.
- Talk to the management of the day care to arrange social events with his friends there.
- Making daycare experiences interesting will help in reducing his separation anxiety.
14. Do not overprotect
It might sound funny, but at times we moms have more separation anxiety than our toddlers. When we cannot control our anxious feelings, they are transmitted to our kids.
We as moms need to understand that there is a difference between loving and caring, and being overprotecting and making them dependent. It is our responsibility as parents to stop ourselves from this. Help them in trusting their abilities and make them as independent as possible.