Separation Anxiety in Toddlers
Does your toddler cry, become anxious and have emotional meltdowns whenever you leave the room? Do they clutch at your legs, refuse to separate and wail non-stop until they get picked up?
Read on to understand more about separation anxiety in toddlers and what you can do about it.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety happens when children are afraid of being separated from their parents and the people they are closest to. It generally starts to appear when a “baby”/baby-care/milestones/development/separation-anxiety is around six to eight months of age and can last until up to their fourth birthday. But generally within this time there are periods when separation anxiety is better or worse.
Why is my Toddler like This?
You may feel you’re alone in this little scenario but honestly, you’re not. Separation anxiety in toddlers is so common that it’s seen as just a normal part of growing up. Young children go through stages of learning how to trust other people. They need to develop close emotional connections with those who will meet their needs for survival.
It’s all About Me!
Toddlers believe that the whole world rotates around them and everyone is here for their benefit. When things don’t go the way they’d like, they lose control. This is shown in their body and verbal language.
Toddlers don’t know about how to behave in socially acceptable ways. They are totally egocentric –what they want, they want – now! They don’t have the brain capacity to understand that other people have needs as well.
Every toddler behaves in their own unique way. Some are just a little less public when it comes to displaying their emotions.
Toddlers also need to progress through complex stages of emotional development. If they miss a stage, it can mean they will struggle as adults in building trusting relationships with others.
Don’t feel as if you’re toddler will always show separation anxiety. With the right management and just a little understanding of toddler development, you’ll be able to support your little one through this age and stage.
What Separation Anxiety Really Means
Your toddler is showing you that they love you in the best way they know how. Their need for emotional security is so strong that they will use whatever ways they can to get your attention and reassurance. That means being loud and shrill and tugging at your heartstrings.
If your toddler could say the words “I need you to be close to me”, they would. But because their language skills are still developing, they have to demonstrate this need through their behaviour. All that clutching and grabbing, crying and sadness really is a cry for closeness.
First Things First
- Consider a medical check up for your toddler. Rarely, separation anxiety is linked with vision or hearing problems.
- Speak with your partner about how you’ll manage this. Consistency is important.
- Think about your own emotional needs. Sometimes separation anxiety in toddlers can provide reassurance for parents that they should be getting from other adults.
Tips to Deal with Separation Anxiety in Toddlers
Managing separation anxiety in toddlers is not a quick fix. It takes time for toddlers to build feelings of security to a manageable level so they don’t feel overwhelmed by their emotions.
- Don’t let your toddler dictate which parent gives the most reassurance. Two loving, affectionate parents can both give positive feedback.
- Ignore whinging and whining. Respond to genuine cries for attention .
- Keep busy. Don’t limit household jobs and paid work because your toddler is anxious. Creating an artificially quiet environment doesn’t support toddler’s skills in learning about real life.
- Talk to your toddler. If you’re going into another room tell them where you are and that you’ll be back.
- Sometimes toddlers like to have a cuddly toy to hold onto. This can help to make them feel secure. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t have their own “transitional love object”.
- Talk in a reassuring, genuine tone. Toddlers pick up on their parent’s anxiety so be calm.
- Give random affection like hugs and kisses when they’re not expected.
- Consider day care for a couple of days a week. Exposure to other toddlers and adults helps to build social skills.
Dealing with Separation Anxiety and Day Care
- Aim for a settling in period for day care. This is better for you, your toddler and their carers.
- Do your research into which day care situation is right for your child. If you don’t feel 100% confident then you’ll feel anxious.
- Don’t prolong goodbyes. This makes separation anxiety worse. Tell your toddler that you’re going but you’ll be back.
- Let them know when you’ll return. Frame this to their understanding e.g. “I’ll be back when you wake up”.
- Don’t let your toddler see you becoming upset. They’ll follow your lead. Save your own tears for outside, away from their eyesight.
- When reunited, be happy and affectionate. Look for a balance between reasonable amounts and too much.
- Going overboard can work in a negative way. Toddlers can interpret their parents constant reassurance as meaning there really is something to be anxious about.
10 Top Tips to Deal with Separation Anxiety
- Expect “emotional fallouts” when your toddler is tired and/or hungry.
- It’s important to be fair and reasonable. Don’t expect your toddler to behave perfectly every day. We are all entitled to good and bad days.
- Be consistent. Toddlers need the security of their parents responding in the same way.
- Follow routines. These help toddlers to learn about predictability and outcomes.
- Be fair. If you have more than one child, try giving an equal amount of attention. Quiet kids need their parent’s attention too.
- Be realistic about your child’s abilities. Social and emotional development varies between individual children. They don’t all do the same things at the same time.
- Praise positive behaviour. When your toddler is playing well and doesn’t demand your attention, give them lots of descriptive praise.
- Role model positive separation behaviour yourself. Keep goodbyes with other people happy, calm and upbeat. This will help your toddler learn that saying “tata” isn’t so bad.
- Don’t limit social engagements. Toddlers benefit from seeing their parents talking to other adults and children. Insulating doesn’t work and can make separation anxiety worse.
- Aim for special, one on one time every day. Toddlers chase affection if they don’t feel they’re getting enough. Misbehaving can be a sign of needing more attention, not less.
What not to do when Managing Separation Anxiety
- Punishing makes separation anxiety worse. Smacking, hitting, yelling and threats don’t work and make toddlers frightened.
- Assume your toddler is particularly sensitive, “sooky” or fragile. This is a developmental stage.
- Pushing your toddler away won’t help. You may feel you have no personal space but this stage will pass. Be patient.
- Don’t compare your toddler to others. Genetics, gender, environment, personality and experience all play a part in how children separate from their parents.
- Avoid giving positive feedback for separation anxiety. Rewarding with treat foods, gifts and toys can be misinterpreted.
- That your toddler isn’t trying to make life difficult for you. Their brain is still immature. Give them time to evolve and learn other ways of gaining your attention.
- To stay calm and in control of your own emotions. Seeing our kids upset makes us stressed – it’s meant to. But be the adult and a steady, secure anchor.
- It’s important to look after your own needs. Parents who give everything don’t have any reserves for themselves.
Try not to worry. Toddler separation anxiety is not a snapshot of permanent behaviour. Children evolve into what they will become.
This article was written by Jane Barry Child Health Nurse, Midwife and director of www.mybabybaby.com.au