The pain of parting: What your toddler needs from you
Having to leave your wailing little one with a caregiver is pure agony. But take heart...separation anxiety is normal and there are ways to ease the pain for both you and your child.
By Aruna Raghuram • 17 min read
For Mona, the hardest part of going back to work was leaving her 14-month-old son at home with a nanny. Her son had begun to recognise the signs that she was leaving him for the day. When she picked up her bag and gathered him in for a hug, he would start bawling, clinging to her leg in desperation…
Ria’s parents were trying to get her used to sleeping in her own room, but the two-year-old did not like this new arrangement one bit. She would return to her parents’ room after the bedtime story, hugs and goodnight kisses, and insist on sleeping with them. It was as if she felt her parents would disappear during the night if they were not with her…
Both these cases are illustrations of separation anxiety in children– the bogey that haunts young parents who have to be away from their little one even for a few hours. While the anguish of the child and the guilt of the parent are very real, parents must realise that separation anxiety in children is a normal, healthy phase of child development.
What is separation anxiety?
A concise definition is given by Thomson and her colleagues (2017) in the study ‘Developmental Trajectories of Children’s Anxiety and Depression After the Birth of a Sibling’. According to the study: “Separation anxiety is a normal developmental phase during early childhood in which a young child experiences distress brought on by separation or fear of separation from the primary caregivers (usually the parents). The child displays clinginess to the parent and extreme distress upon separation from the parent and may appear fearful, anxious, or high-strung.”
Separation anxiety usually makes an appearance when a child is between 7-8 months old and peaks between 14 and 18 months. Typically, it goes away by the time a child is three years old.
Around the age of seven months, babies start perceiving what is known as ‘object permanence’ – that things and people exist even when they are not in sight. When your baby can’t see you, his primary caregiver, he realises you have gone away somewhere. Since he does not have a sense of time, he doesn’t know if and when you will be back, and this makes him insecure and unsettled.
His anxious mind is filled with questions: “Will my mom come back?” “Will my parents forget about me?” Different children react in different ways to this anxiety. Some may cry, cling, throw a tantrum and resist other caregivers in order to persuade the parent not to leave. This behaviour usually subsides once the parent is out of view. Others may refuse to say goodbye and sulk. Still others may be fearful and restless during the entire duration of the parent’s absence.
Separation anxiety in toddlers
The toddler years are when children explore their surroundings more actively and develop a measure of independence. As a result, they begin having a greater awareness of separation. For instance, your toddler may wander into the garden and get absorbed in trying to catch a butterfly. Suddenly, he may realise that you are not around and start crying.
It is attachment to the primary caregiver that causes the sense of ‘missing’ that person, and separation anxiety. Another reason is that toddlers feel shy about receiving care from others – this may trigger anxiety when they are left with a grandparent, family friend, or nanny.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), separation anxiety, defiant behaviour, and a growing sense of independence are all part of toddler development. As your child begins to understand that she’s a separate person from you, she also wants to take some control. And one of the ways she wants to do this is by not letting you leave her.
The positive side
- Separation anxiety is absolutely normal and a healthy phase of child development.
- It is a sign that your child feels loved by you, his primary caregiver, and misses the love, comfort, and safety your presence signifies when you are away. This strong bonding is referred to as ‘secure attachment’.
- This type of anxiety also serves the purpose of keeping your child safe– as it manifests in a desire to be with parents and a distrust of strangers.
- This is also a sign that your baby is getting smart and remembering things. Earlier, she lived entirely in the present. She had no recollection of the past or no anticipation of the future. She now remembers that you were near her a moment ago but are no longer there.
- Separation anxiety will lessen and eventually pass. When it fades away, and to what extent your child displays this type of anxiety, depends partly on the temperament of the child.
When to worry
In rare cases, babies and toddlers may not display separation anxiety in expected ways, like crying or sulking, but they may display some other symptoms. This does not necessarily mean something is wrong. But if your toddler frequently shows signs of distress such as vomiting, reach out to your paediatrician or consult a psychologist.
Separation anxiety rarely troubles a child after the preschool years. However, it may return triggered by illness, the birth of a sibling, parental conflict or divorce, a shift to a new neighbourhood, a new nanny, or even when a young child has to go back to school after a vacation.
If your preschooler or school-age child seems particularly and regularly upset about being separated from you, he might have separation anxiety disorder. In this case, it is best to consult a mental health professional, such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.
ParentCircle asked clinical child psychologist Preethi Ninan when parents should be concerned. This is what she had to say:
It should worry a parent if the child shows anxiety to a degree that is more than what is expected for the developmental stage, or if he continues to show anxiety over long periods of time, causing significant distress or interfering with daily activities and tasks. We would then call this separation anxiety disorder, a diagnosis usually made at later ages, such as beyond the age of five years.
Some of the factors that may be associated with higher levels of separation anxiety disproportionate to that developmental stage include:
- Heightened anxiety in parents: Normal separation anxiety in a child might be worsened if parents themselves are experiencing severe anxiety. This could be due to genetic transmission or because of the way anxious parents react to situations.
- Parenting variables, including overprotection and over-involvement such as restricting the child’s own exploration of new situations, or less warmth.
- An insecure attachment to parents.
- The child’s own temperamental characteristics, such as of ‘behavioural inhibition’ (the tendency to experience distress and to withdraw from unfamiliar situations, people, or environments).
- Stressful life situations that the child might have encountered, such as severe parental discord or separation, physical illness in the child or parent, and so on. For instance, I once worked with a couple who had lived abroad, and their daughter was born and raised there until the age of around two years. At that point, they had to shift back to India, and there were several changes in setting and schedule that they were unprepared for. The child began to display high levels of anxiety, manifested through symptoms such as clinginess and night terrors.
Separation anxiety tips for parents
Although it is normal behaviour for a toddler to express separation anxiety in various ways, it can be very disturbing for both the child and the parents. Here’s what you can do to ease the anxiety and distress.
Keep goodbyes short: Don’t sneak away without saying goodbye to your child. However, it is better to keep the goodbyes short. Be loving, and hug and kiss your child. Tell him where you are going (whether to office or for errands) and that you will be back soon. Instead of focussing on the goodbye, get your child excited about what you will do together when you are home from work.
Parenting educator Elizabeth Pantley in her book The No-Cry Separation Anxiety Solution: Gentle Ways to Make Good-bye Easy from Six Months to Six Years suggests playing peekaboo and moving on to play ‘the bye-bye’ game with your child. In the latter game, she explains, say “Bye-Bye” to your toddler and duck behind a cot or chair so that she can’t see you. Wait a few seconds and then pop out and say ‘Hi Baby!’ “You can increase the interval slowly as your child grows older and understands the game, and this will help when you need to leave the house, or simply leave the room,” says Pantley.
Timing the departure: Separations are tougher to handle when children are hungry, tired, or sick. You can’t prevent illness, but ensure that your child is rested and fed before you leave. You can plan your own departure in such a way that your child leaves simultaneously for the park. If not, leave him enjoying his favourite snack. Ask the caregiver to keep a toy or game ready to distract your child soon after you leave, or as you are leaving, so that he will not dwell on your absence but get engaged in play.
Don’t show your negative emotions: Never show your guilt or anxiety to your child even if her cries wrench your heart. Look relaxed and happy when you are leaving. If you show your worry or sadness, your child will feel more anxious. Keep the atmosphere cheerful. Assure your child that she will be fine. Be firm, as this will help her adjust to the separation sooner.
Also, never return to check on your child. If you have just left your wailing toddler at a day-care centre, you may be tempted to drop in after an hour to check whether she is okay. Avoid doing this as it will further unsettle your child.
Practice being apart: If you are a young mom planning to go back to work, get your toddler used to your absence by leaving him initially with grandparents or family friends with whom he is familiar.
I got back to full-time work when my daughter was one year old. But I started practising leaving her alone for three to four hours ever since she was nine months old. I wanted her to get used to my being away. She was fine with that. But now she is more demanding of my attention. She pulls my hand and cries when I leave for work. I am told by my in-laws and the caregiver that she is okay after five minutes and gets distracted easily – which is a relief.
I just try to spend as much time with her as possible. Recently, we were at a family wedding where I was with her constantly. Since we returned, she has been clinging a lot more.
Vidisha Hegde, working mother of one and a half year-old Nivriti
Encourage independence: Leave your toddler alone in the playroom with her toys and spend time in another room, checking on her now and then to ensure she is safe. It is important to encourage independence and give your child opportunities to exercise control. For instance, start teaching her how to brush her teeth, let her choose which book you will read, or which snack she gets to eat.
Get her used to the caregiver: Select your nanny with care and hire her well in advance so that your child feels comfortable and secure in her presence. Make sure your child senses you have faith in the caregiver.
Try a short trial separation. This first time you leave your child alone with the nanny, keep it short – not more than an hour. Gradually, as you and your child get familiar with both the caregiver and the separation, extend the number of hours.
Set up a comforting routine: Leave your child with something comforting like a favourite blanket, a soft toy or a family picture.
In the popular picture book Kissing Hand, a mother raccoon is shown comforting her baby with a kiss on the paw. Apparently, author Audrey Penn, when on a train journey, saw a mother raccoon place its nose on a baby raccoon’s paw. The baby then placed its paw on its own face. This ritual, Penn was told by a park ranger, transferred the scent from mother to baby so that the baby could recall the mother’s scent in her absence. Penn started kissing her daughter’s hand whenever she had to leave her daughter. She told her daughter she could put her hand to her face whenever she missed mommy. This made her feel a part of her mom was with her even when she was away. This book has been used by thousands of parents to reassure children upset by separation anxiety.
Keep your word: If you tell your toddler that you will be back when he gets up from his afternoon nap, make sure you do. Being consistent will make your child trust you and get adjusted more easily to your absence.
Also, ensure your child is happily engaged in your absence. If there is something in the child-care setting that you child does not like, she is likely to display more separation anxiety.
Spend sufficient bonding time: When you get back from work or before you leave for an errand, spend relaxing time with your toddler, taking him to the park, reading a story, playing a game, or dancing to music together. Interestingly, the deeper the bond you form with your child, the more it helps him grow as a separate being and enables him to face more separation.
Help her understand her feelings: Read books or tell her stories that relate to separation anxiety. If she knows that a baby racoon also feels the way she does when her mommy is away, it will reduce the anxiety. Never criticise her for her difficulty with separation. If you try to discipline her with time-outs or other consequences, it will make her behaviour more difficult to manage.
In most cases of separation anxiety, parental understanding and empathy will help a child cope with separation – an important life-skill he needs to learn.
In a nutshell
- Separation anxiety is normal and usually nothing to worry about
- It is a sign that your child is well bonded with you
- However, as it disturbs both the child and the parents, it can be eased by adopting several strategies, such as setting up a comforting routine, practice being apart, etc.
- Parents need to be calm and consistent to effectively deal with this anxiety
What you can do right away
- Keep goodbyes short
- Be cheerful and talk about joint activities planned for later
- Get your child gradually used to the substitute caregiver
About the author:
Written by Aruna Raghuram on 3 July 2019.
Aruna Raghuram is a journalist and has worked with various newspapers, writing and editing, for two decades. She has also worked for six years with a consumer rights NGO. At the time of writing this article, she was a consultant with ParentCircle.
About the expert:
Reviewed by Meghna Singhal, PhD, on 7 November 2019.
Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist with a doctorate degree from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia). She is Head of the Content Solutions Zone at ParentCircle.
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