How to help a toddler with separation anxiety

separation anxiety

Watching your little one cry as you wave goodbye is one of the hardest things about parenting. Not only is it heartbreaking to see your toddler upset, but their separation anxiety also brings a wave of guilt about having to leave in the first place.

The good news is that it gets easier (for both you and your little one). The bad news is that there’s no ‘one-size-fits-all-toddlers’ solution. But hopefully, these tips will help steer you and your little one towards more regular tear-free goodbyes.

Put mummy guilt in its place

Mummy guilt is a jerk of a thing and one that we really don’t need. But that doesn’t stop mummy guilt from lingering around, filling our minds with evil thoughts and making us feel like the worst mums ever, simply because we have to go to work, or to the shops, or to the toilet.

The first thing you need to do is take mummy guilt and send it packing. As soon as you feel that wave of guilt flutter through your body, tell it to buzz off. Seriously, it’s not warranted.

Explain the who, what, where and why

Toddlers may not be able to understand everything you say (thank God), but they do comprehend a lot more than you may think. So don’t keep your toddler out of the loop.

Explain the situation – where you are going (Mummy has to go to work); why you are going (Mummy needs to make money so we can play on the weekend); what they will be doing (You get to go to daycare and play); and who they will be with (You will be with all your little friends and Miss Swan).

And, most importantly, always reassure your child that you will be coming back.

Develop a goodbye routine

Toddlers thrive on routine. Whenever you have to leave, make it into a step-by-step process and get your toddler involved. Let them choose your outfit (haha, just kidding, that won’t end well).

But you can keep them busy during the getting ready process by letting them help pack their lunch and pick out their shoes. Keep a routine for drop off as well.

Put away their belongings together, then draw a picture or share a story before it’s time to say goodbye.

Get them settled

It’s going to be a lot harder to say goodbye when your child is lost for what to do. Ensure that he is busy doing something – playing with the other kids, working on a project, or even sitting with the teacher, before you make your exit.

Provide a peace offering

A peace offering is a little trinket or memento that your little one can keep with them when you leave – a photo of you, one of your (old) necklaces, a (clean) sock, even – something that they can reach for or pull out of their backpack if they feel scared.

Focus on the aftermath

Provide your child with something to look forward to – when mummy comes and gets you, we can go to the park/play a game/build a puzzle.

separation anxiety

Consider their point of view…and work from there

Why is your child anxious when you leave? Many experts suggest that a child with separation anxiety doesn’t feel secure or stable. He doesn’t trust that you will come back.

And this is probably the best way to make a mum who does have a child with separation anxiety feel like she is doing everything wrong.

So, ignore it.

Some children just really like spending time with their mums. Why? Because mum is what they are used to. And mum is comfortable, safe, and fun. Why wouldn’t your toddler want to hang out with you over anyone else?

Some children have an anxious temperament, are more reserved, are less comfortable in new situations and need more reassurance than others. And many children also have anxiety disorders that go undiagnosed.

So stop blaming yourself and consider your child’s personality. An introverted child is probably going to have more trouble letting go than an extroverted one. And, if the separation anxiety appears to be causing major concern, then make an appointment with a doctor to discuss a solution catered to your situation.

Don’t look back (most of the time)

When you drop your toddler off, kiss them, say goodbye and walk away, even if they scream for you to come back or the daycare providers have to pull them off your leg.

In most instances, they will be completely content in a few minutes. Call to check if you are concerned.

But, sometimes, do look back

Experts don’t agree with me on this one but I don’t care. Because all parents get to choose what’s right for them and, sometimes, what’s right is to give in to one more cuddle, to offer them five more minutes, and to stay a little longer….

If it feels right to you, then do it.

toddler holding hands with parent

Accept that leaving your child is part of life

Separation anxiety sucks. It’s hard on you. It’s hard on your toddler. And it’s hard on the caregivers who have to rip your child out of your grasp. But it’s all part of parenting. And no one said it was going to be easy! Rewarding, yes. Worth it, yes. But easy? No.

Know that it gets easier with time

Both my children suffered (okay… suffer) from separation anxiety. While with the first child it was almost impossible to leave, by the second child I was used to the crocodile tears and able to take a deep breath and walk away without breaking down.

So, from one mum to another, it does get easier with time, practice and constant reminders that you are not screwing them up by leaving for the day.

After all, absence makes the heart grow fonder. And once you return to your little one, both of you will be more than ready to make up for lost time.

Oh, if and if your little one is prone to chucking a wobbly when you’re out and about, check our article about how to deal with toddler tantrums in public.