Separation anxiety (12 to 24 mo.)

Separation anxiety (12 to 24 mo.)

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Your baby's devotion to you above all others was one of the best feelings in the world. But his attachment may not seem quite as charming now that he's older and still falls apart whenever you head to the bathroom without him.

Hang in there: Your toddler is experiencing separation anxiety, a developmental phase that nearly all children go through (sometimes more than once) during their early years. And thankfully, it isn't permanent.

Why separation anxiety happens

Around 6 months or so, your baby begins to realize that you and she are separate people, which means that you could leave her.

She's also capable of representational thinking now, so she can picture objects (like you) in her mind after they're no longer visible. In other words, out of sight no longer means out of mind. (This is one reason why she suddenly gets such a kick out of playing peekaboo.)

As your child grows into toddlerhood, she's developing a strong drive for independence, but she still needs your devoted support. All this can lead to a fear that you've abandoned her whenever you're not there.

It's unclear why some kids pass through this phase with barely a whimper while other children become consumed by it. Whatever the reason or intensity, you'll be happy to know that your toddler will outgrow this phase. When? Well, that's a tricky one.

Separation anxiety tends to wax and wane throughout the toddler years. But the period of extreme neediness usually peaks between 10 and 18 months and eases by 2 years. She should be fully out of it by age 3.

In the meantime, here are some tips and tricks to help departures go as smoothly as possible:

What to do

Say goodbye when you leave. Parents who fear their toddler's wrath may try to sneak out of the house while he's distracted. Big mistake. This approach may save you the pain of watching your child cry, but it can actually make his separation anxiety more severe. If he thinks you might disappear at any given moment without notice, he's not going to let you out of his sight.

This also goes for nighttime departures. Some parents try to avoid drama by putting their child down for the night before the babysitter arrives. That's all well and good if he stays asleep. But if he wakes up, he'll be surprised – and possibly terrified – to find you gone.

Help your child look ahead. Your child understands much more than she can say. Prepare her for your departure by telling her where you're going and when you'll be back. Tell her who will watch her and what sort of activities she can look forward to doing while you're away.

It's also important to talk about your child's sitter with enthusiasm. Your child looks to you for reassurance, and she'll be inclined to agree if you say things like, "I think Bella is so much fun, don't you?" To gauge how much of your conversation she's absorbing, follow up with simple questions like, "Where am I going tonight?" or "Who's going to watch you while Mommy and Daddy go to dinner?"

Look on the sunny side. You might share your toddler's apprehension about being separated. But if you let it show, your child's almost certain to pick up on it. Besides, a dramatic farewell will just validate your child's feelings of insecurity.

Try to stay calm and positive – even if he's hysterical. Talk to him evenly and reassure him that you'll be back soon. Keep the situation light by adopting a silly parting phrase such as, "see you later, alligator" or your own made-up alternative. Getting your child in the habit of responding with, "after while, crocodile" will also serve as a distraction.

Try a transitional object. Having a reminder of you might comfort your child while you're gone. When you go out, leave her with a personal memento – a photograph, an old sweater of yours, or a special sticker for her to wear.

(There's a chance this could backfire and just serve as a constant reminder that you aren't around, so ask your sitter if your child seemed comforted or agitated by it.)

A security object – a blanket, a stuffed animal, or even his own thumb – also can be comforting.

Play "name that feeling." Help your toddler learn to put simple labels on his feelings. When your child starts to get upset, say, "I know that you're sad that Mommy's leaving. What you're feeling is called 'missing.' When Mommy leaves she has those 'missing' feelings too."

"Sometimes all a child needs is a way to express his fears," says child psychologist Donald Freedheim, founding director of the Schubert Center for Child Studies in Cleveland, Ohio. "Teaching him a name for what he's feeling helps defuse the anxiety."

Set up gradual transitions. Ask the sitter to arrive a half hour early. This allows the sitter and your child to get acquainted while you're nearby as a calming presence. If you're starting with a new long-term childcare provider, you may want take a day or two off work – or see whether the sitter can come on the weekend – and do a few activities together.

Whenever your child seems happily engaged with her sitter, recede into the background. If your child brings you a book to read, for example, encourage her to ask the sitter to read it with her. Or if she wants to be picked up, suggest that she let the new caregiver do the honors.

Head out at the same time. Goodbyes are always easier when it's your child who does the leaving. Have the sitter take him for a quick trip to the park or out for a stroll at the same time you head out the door. Make sure your child understands that you're going out as well, or he'll be doubly upset when he returns to find the house empty.

Involve your child in an activity. Wait for your toddler and her caregiver to get engrossed in an activity before you leave. Then give your child a quick kiss goodbye and head for the door. She may still cry, but the activity can serve as a distraction soon after your departure.

Let him learn to cope. No parent likes to see her child feeling sad, but coping with separation is an important skill your child needs to learn. Sometimes doing nothing – especially if you've already tried everything – is the best advice.

"Learning to cope is an important developmental task," says Freedheim. "Your child has to learn that there are times when he's going to be unhappy."

If your child is so clingy that you can't even cross the room without a protest, for example, caving to his demands may only make the situation worse. If he's safe, it's okay to let him cry a bit. In a matter-of-fact voice, reassure him that everything's okay, and then go ahead and do whatever it is you need to do – without feeling guilty.

Learn more:

Find out why your toddler may reject your affection

Learn ways to help your child grow independent

Get help coping with separation anxiety in the our site Community

Watch the video: Ask Dr. Phelan: Handling Separation Anxiety (July 2022).


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