How to ease separation anxiety in toddlers

No, you’re not overreacting — it’s common for parents to feel worried about leaving their child with a family member or putting them in preschool. The reason why we’re so apprehensive is that we don’t want our little one to be scared or angry at us for leaving them. After spending most of our time with them, it’s also hard on us, too. Separation anxiety in toddlers can be stressful all round!

Many mums and dads become even more sensitive to the issue after a bout of separation anxiety. The good news is that separation anxiety in toddlers is typically a normal developmental occurrence for infants and toddlers. While they’ll usually grow out of it by age three, there are ways you can identify when your kid is expressing abnormal behavior—and how to make even the most textbook experience much smoother. In the guide below, we’ll explore how to soothe their emotions and help them get used to changes in schedule, as well as how to know when it’s time to talk to their doctor.

Understanding the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety 

By the time your little one is around eight months of age, they are very aware of their surroundings and the people they trust. Whether they’re placed in the arms of an acquaintance or go to a new daycare, they will often react to these new situations with clinginess and fear. Children with overprotective parents or toddlers who have recently dealt with a stressful situation are more likely to react strongly to being separated from their loved ones. The symptoms can be distressing for parents to watch, and may include crying, begging or whining.

If your son or daughter is dealing with normal separation anxiety, they’ll probably start to feel better when they get used to their environment—or may relax if they notice you aren’t too nervous about what’s happening. However, there are some instances when reactions turn into a separation anxiety disorder (SAD). Common signs of SAD include clinginess at home, recurring episodes of panic and stomachaches.

Best Ways to Ease Normal Separation Anxiety

First off, remind yourself that most cases of separation anxiety in toddlers are entirely normal. There is an end in sight—especially if you do what you can to help your child adjust. Before you even consider calling your doctor, try the following tips.

Ease your child’s anxiety by…

  • Finding a long-term caregiver—If you need to go back to work full-time, consider all of your care-giving options. Is a parent or family friend available? Ask if they’re interested in the role on a long-term basis. Should you need to hire a nanny or babysitter, seek one who does the job for a living or won’t be leaving town anytime soon.
  • Separating gradually—Allow your child to adjust as slowly as possible. For example, if you are sending your toddler off to day-long preschool next fall, try a few hours of daycare in the summer. Before you even register them, take them to a meet-and-greet and ask if it’s possible to enrol them in shorter educational sessions. By the time you take them through each stage, they’ll be comfortable with the teachers and classroom setting.
  • Practice short goodbyes—Your little human can sense your energy, so don’t show them you are nervous. Give them a quick hug and kiss them on the cheek, or leave them with a familiar greeting, such as “see ya later, alligator.” If you ensure them that they’re loved and don’t seem like you’re worried about the separation, they are less likely to throw a fit.
  • Remembering the small details—Did you leave your son with grandma when he was hungry? Did your daughter refuse a nap before you sent her with the babysitter? Try your best to take care of basic needs before you leave.

Strategies for Handling Separation Anxiety Disorder

If you think your child is suffering from more than normal separation anxiety, it’s time to talk to their doctor. Tell them what you’re noticing, including physical manifestations of nervousness like headaches and stomach issues. You should also explain if they’re struggling with symptoms at home, even if they’re not with their other caregiver. In addition to advice, they may suggest enrolling your child in therapy or counselling. After the paediatrician’s visit, you can also help your child directly.

Assist your doctor with the issue by…

  • Staying calm at all times—Treat the situation the same as you would with standard separation anxiety. Stay strong, give them love and do not linger around too long. If you feel like you need to cry or talk with someone about the experience, do so after you leave the room.
  • Communicating with your child—If your child is old enough to talk with you about feelings, listen to them and reassure them that everything will be okay. Tell them that you’re not going to leave them forever, and that once you’re done with work, your errands or your dinner date, you’ll be back to get them.
  • Adjusting your schedule—While it’s important for your child to engage in their normal activities, you may want to make slight changes to how you approach separation. Resist the urge to pull them out of preschool or daycare, especially if you and your partner both work full-time. It’ll only put more strain on the family and create more anxiety issues in the future. Instead, consider becoming a “room mum” or visiting for lunch once per week. If you find that your partner encounters less resistance during separation, ask them if they can do drop-offs.
  • Prioritizing their health—Physical and mental health go hand-in-hand. Be sure your little one is getting enough sleep, eating nutritious meals and has plenty of time to relax and be with you during the evening or weekends.

Conquering Separation Anxiety

Whether your child experiences normal separation anxiety or has a more difficult time with leaving you, addressing the issue head-on can make the phase end faster. In many cases, children simply need time to become acquainted with their daytime caregiver or classroom, while others will benefit from psychological interventions like play therapy. Stay positive and realize that your approach really does make a difference. By tuning in to your son’s or daughter’s needs and refusing to be ashamed of their symptoms, you can turn the corner faster than you think.

I hope these tips for handling separation anxiety in toddlers were helpful. If you have any tips or experiences to share do leave them in a comment below.

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