How to Handle Toddler Separation Anxiety
When your little one begs you not to abandon them at preschool (or at the babysitter’s or at bedtime), it can be tough to handle. Sad eyes and clingy pleas really pull at the heartstrings!
Tools for Handling Separation Worries
The Fast-Food Rule + Toddler-ese. Narrating your child’s feelings with a bit of intensity to hit their sweet spot—this helps them feel accepted and safe.
Patience-Stretching. Practice the following three techniques for several days to help prepare your child for easier separations. Start with a few seconds and gradually increase to a minute. They’ll quickly learn that waiting is cool because when they’re patient they usually get what they want.
Fairy Tales. Prepare your child for what is to come by telling little stories in which Mommy goes away …but always comes back.
“Once upon a time there was a little birdie named Fluffy who worried when her mommy flew away to find breakfast. She said, ‘Don’t go, Mommy!’ But her mommy had to leave. . . for just a super-duper fast minute. So Fluffy waited and sang songs with her teddy bear until Mommy came back. Mommy always came back, and then Fluffy felt happy and safe. ‘Yea! Mommy’s home!’ the little birdie cheered, and her mom gave her lots of kisses . . . and some big juicy worms to eat.”
Loveys. Loveys are terrific for kids with separation issues. Encourage your tot to make friends with a lovey. If your older toddler hasn’t yet taken to one, offer a special charm (like a bracelet, magic coin, photo) that they can touch and look at whenever they miss you.
It’s a good idea to practice these at home when your tyke is calm and happy—rather than springing them on your little one when they’re stressed.
Putting It All Together
After practicing the above techniques at home for several days, here’s how to use them to respond to your child’s protests at daycare or preschool. I call this combination of tools “Mommy Interruptus.”
Start by Connecting with Respect. Give hugs and echo your child’s concerns in a sincere voice with lots of repetition: “You say, ‘No! No, No!!! No school! No go, Mommy!’ ”Once your tot calms a bit, give them a little time-in (play, read, or sit together as you describe what other kids are wearing and doing).
Next, use patience-stretching and loveys. After a few minutes, act like you suddenly remembered you have to do something: “Oh! Oh! Wait! Wait! Mommy has to see Teacher. Wait! Wait!” Then say, “You hold teddy (or your magic bracelet) really hard, and Mommy will be right back!” Then walk quickly across the room and return in just two or three seconds, saying, “I know, sweetheart. You say, ‘Mommy, don’t go!’ But, good waiting! Good waiting! Come on, let’s play!”
If your tyke protests, reflect their feelings by hitting their sweet spot with your face, tone, and gestures. Play a little more, until they are happy for a few minutes; then repeat the patience- stretching. For example, you might suddenly say, “Uh-oh! Pee-pee! Pee-pee! Mommy has to go pee-pee. Here, hug teddy, I’ll be right back.” Then leave the room for a quick three seconds.
Over the next 15 minutes, repeat this process many times. (“Uh-oh! Mommy has to pee-pee again! Here, let me draw a funny face on your hand you can look at, and I’ll be right back.”) Gradually leave for longer periods (10 seconds, 20 seconds, 30 seconds, one minute).
Once your child can calmly handle several minutes without you, you can leave for good. But never sneak away! Give a big wave and cheerfully announce, “Bye-bye! I love you. I’ll see you after your nap. If you want me, just touch your magic bracelet (or look at the funny face I drew on your hand) and think of me giving you a big hug.” You might also mention something fun you’ll do together after school.
The Icing on the Cake: Praise + Gossip
When you pick your child up at the end of the day, praise your tot’s success (give them a star or hand check). At home, gossip to Grandma or Daddy about their courage: “Darcy told me, ‘No, no. Don’t go…,’ but then she saw fun toys and some fun big girls, and she was brave. She had a silly time and ate snack…a big cracker with juice! Then Mommy came back and gave Darcy a big hug and we were happy!”
Note: Some strong-willed kids cry when you leave, despite all your preparation. If that happens with your tot, call the school 20 minutes after you leave, and ask the teacher if they are still crying. If the school reports that they started playing happily two minutes after you left, take a deep breath and congratulate yourself. (Fortunately, this is what happens nine times out of 10.)
However, if your child won’t stop crying after you leave, something else may be fueling their anxiety. If there are stresses at home (like a new baby, divorce, etc.), plan to stay at school all day, for a few days, to monitor the situation. If you can’t stay, try to pay some surprise visits to make sure the kids and teachers are treating your little one well. Keep using playing the boob, fairy tales, role-playing, patience-stretching, magic breathing, etc., to boost your tot’s self-confidence at home. If the fussing continues, consider changing schools or sitters.
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.