When do children start displaying independence? One moment, it seems, your child is completely reliant on you for everything: eating, sleeping, using the bathroom. Next thing you know, your baby is now a toddler, and expected to learn, play with others, and attend preschool. Some children adapt to this transition without any issue; for others, mommy being out of sight is grounds for an instant meltdown.
The truth is, separation anxiety in toddlers varies wildly from child to child. Your toddler may not have any problem being away from you, but the key to helping a child who does have separation anxiety through their panic is being ready for it, no matter what. Your toddler will still likely be sad to see you go, but there are ways to nip more serious separation anxiety in the bud.
Start Them Young
If you’re reading and your child is still an infant, congratulations: you have some extra time to help prepare them to for time away from you. Starting as young as possible, introduce your child to other caregivers, including babysitters, friends, and other relatives.
You can still be present when this happens; the goal here is less about getting your child used to your absence, and more about familiarizing them with the presence of others in addition to you. If successful, this will make it easier for your child to adjust to the idea of being taken care of by someone else by the time they’ve grown to be a toddler.
Do It Fast
Most parents have goodbye rituals for their young children: a kiss on the cheek, a spinning hug, a back rub, etc. These are great for marking the transition between time with mommy and daddy and time away, but the key is to make sure that, no matter what your ritual is, you keep it brief. When it’s time to finally spend some time apart from your toddler, it’s best to treat the transition between your presence and your absence like ripping off a Band-Aid. The less time your toddler has to think about you leaving, the quicker they will move past you being gone.
Encourage It Through Play
One of the best ways to deal with separation anxiety is to turn the anxiety part on its head and make it into something fun. There are several easy games you can play with your toddler that will help them associate being away from you with being entertained.
Peek-a-boo, for example, is designed to teach children about object permanence, and a side effect of that is the understanding than when things--in particular, mommy or daddy--go away, they also come back. Hide-and-Go-Seek is another great game for older toddlers that will encourage them to and reward them for creating physical distance from you.
Keep It Consistent
However you encourage your child to be okay without you for a few hours, make sure you keep the transition consistent.
Repeating rituals creates an expectation with your child. A toddler who is used to the same routine is more likely to associate your departure with the knowledge that you will return again later on. Departing from these regular rituals can confuse your toddler and make them more reluctant to let you go.
A lot of parents underestimate the amount of information their young children can hear, understand, and process. Many toddlers are fully capable of understanding that mommy is going away but will be back later, as long as they are trusted enough to be told in advance.
When you first start leaving your child in someone else’s care, let them know. If a babysitter is coming over, or if you’re dropping them off at daycare, tell them the plan. Explain where they’re going, who will be with them, and when you’ll be back. It may not completely stop the anxiety of being away from you, but it will at least prepare your toddler for what’s coming.
Keep Your Word
Once you communicate your plan to your child, you must do your absolute best to stick to it. If you tell your toddler you will be back before it gets dark out, for example, they will hold you to that promise.
Keeping your word consistently can help solidify you as trustworthy to you toddler. Not only will they understand that when you are separated, you will be coming back--they’ll believe it, too. As much as possible, avoid last minute changes in plans for the care of your children between your career schedule and stick to an established schedule.
Leave a Bit of You Behind
While no object will ever be a real replacement for the presence of a parent, leaving something with your child that represents you may help them get over their separation anxiety.
Stuffed animals and safety blankets are popular choices for this kind of comfort object, but I suggest going with something more personal. A scarf, a (cheap) necklace or bracelet, a belt, a tie--anything that you actually wear yourself will create a more powerful personal connection with your toddler. Even better if you wear the comfort object when it’s not with them.
Do What You Can, When You Can
A powerful way to help your child adjust to your absence is by making sure their needs are as taken care of as possible while you’re together.
A toddler may be able to move and think on their own, but they still have needs that can only be fulfilled by a parent or caretaker. Before separating from them, make sure your child has eaten and napped. Play with your child as much as you can to fulfill their emotional needs. Ensuring the contentment of your toddler will help them grow emotionally and prepare them better to be apart from you.
Be Prepared to Adapt
No two children are the same. All of the tips here may help your toddler with separation anxiety--or they might have no effect on your specific situation. The most important thing is to focus on the needs of your child. Your toddler may be young, but they still know their own needs best; be prepared to listen to your child’s wants, and create a system for powering through separation anxiety together.