Having a toddler around my house provides a nice ego boost. To wit: any time I return to my 2-year-old’s side, even after a minutes-long separation, she will hug my legs and exclaim earnestly, “Mom! I missed you.” These, of course, are the good days.
On the hard days, my daughter can’t tolerate me taking a quick bathroom break. If I leave her in the company of her dad, I’m distracted by the pained and explosive screams that follow me up the stairs. And nap time? Let’s just say that it isn’t always restful.
According to Dr. Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker and author of Ignore It! How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction, my toddler is showing me a textbook example of separation anxiety.
The Signals of Separation Anxiety
Dr. Pearlman told me that the telltale signs include many of the cues my child has given me: clinginess, following me from room to room, crying when separated, bedtime struggles, and even less obvious symptoms like more tantrums, stomach aches, and regressions in the potty training department.
As frustrating as these moments can be, Emily Patillo, a developmental therapist, assured me that this anxiety is actually a developmental gain. She warned me that these issues will crop up all throughout childhood, which should be motivation enough to come up with a plan to deal.
The Plan to Manage Separation Anxiety
When it comes to dealing with separation anxiety within your home, Dr. Pearlman stressed the importance of taking baby steps to instill confidence in your children that they can handle brief moments of being apart. “Parents often give in to demands of anxiety-ridden children because, in that moment, it may seem the easiest,” she said. “However, that only reinforces the child’s anxiety.”
She suggested teaching children some simple self-soothing techniques such as deep breathing to get through tough moments. At the same time, she said, “Parents can empower kids by saying, ‘I know you are uncomfortable when I go to the bathroom with the door closed. I know it’s hard for you. But I know you can handle it. I will be out of the bathroom as soon as I’m done, and then we can read a story together.’”
Apply this two-prong approach consistently, and with time, your child will be able to weather these short moments without you. First, always validate your child’s feelings, showing them you understand how tough this moment is for them. Next, reassure them you’re coming back and that you have a plan for what comes next (e.g. reading a book together). As with everything parenting-related, it’s also key to remain calm.
“Bedtime is a great example of a time when parents give into children’s demands for short term gain,” Dr. Pearlman said. Doing so can exacerbate the problem, creating long-term sleep struggles and increasing anxiety in kids.
So, what’s the answer for desperate and sleep-deprived parents everywhere? Creating a solid bedtime routine void of any negotiating. She suggested being 100 percent consistent in your approach, following the same steps each night so that children can feel confident about what comes next. When it’s time to disconnect, remind your little one that, while this may be tough, you know they can do it. Tell them you’ll check on them at regular intervals, but don’t sit by their side or climb into bed with them.
So, what’s the answer for desperate and sleep-deprived parents everywhere? Creating a solid bedtime routine void of any negotiating.
“Getting a child to sleep on time and making sure they have enough quality sleep is not a luxury. It’s vital for proper functioning,” she said. “Parents often feel like they are abandoning their child. In fact, the parent is giving the child confidence to accomplish sleep. This can carry over to being alone, even briefly, during the day.”
Separation anxiety often comes into play when interacting with others outside your home. And while we’re not doing too much of that these days, there will be a time when your toddler needs to reenter the world and be a part of social gatherings.
For little ones in the throes of separation anxiety, being in a group of people or in a new environment can trigger some regressive behaviors. Patillo encouraged parents to watch out for clinginess and an unwillingness to explore their surroundings. Your toddler may need more snuggles during these times, and respecting their need for connection while in a new setting will always be the right response.
“By responding to your toddler’s needs in these moments, you are reminding them that they are safe and you are continuing to provide a secure environment for them,” said Patillo. “You aren’t inhibiting growth or making them ‘antisocial.’ Children need to feel safe before they can move away to explore.”
For any type of separation anxiety, preparing toddlers and keying them into what’s happening next can go a long way toward easing their fears. Talk to them about what to expect, whether you’re stepping away for a bathroom break in five minutes or you’re walking into a playdate. Patillo suggested bringing in visual cues to talk about your plans, using pictures of people, places, and more to show children what waits for them.
Once you have a plan in place for tackling brief moments apart, stick with it. Respond in a consistent pattern each and every time. Doing so will help children feel more comfortable moving away from mom and dad to explore.