Tiffany is running late as she hands off her daughter to the nanny. “NO!!” screams her daughter, as Tiffany runs to the door. “I’m sorry, but I’ll be back later,” she says while walking out the door. She can hear her daughter wailing, “Mommy!!” as she walks out of the door, all the way to her car.
The nanny is left with a child in a meltdown. She thinks to herself, “Wow, this is not how I want to start the day. How am I going to help this little girl calm down and what can I say to the mom so this doesn’t happen again?
Have you ever asked yourself, “So how can I help children who have separation anxiety?”
Who Gets Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety can affect parents and caregivers as much as it affects the children. It can result from both adults and children having issues around separation.
Some parents have difficulty letting their children separate. They avoid separation to meet their own needs, such as not feeling guilty or not seeing the child unhappy. This can lead to unhealthy over protectiveness or overly dependent children. They often just need reassurance that others are also capable of meeting the child’s needs.
Other parents are so ready for children to grow up, they push children too quickly, which causes the children to feel anxious, insecure and leads to clingy behavior or power struggles. This can result in meltdowns for the parents or caregivers.
What Causes Toddlers’ Separation Anxiety?
“Separation anxiety” is a common, natural developmental event during the toddler years. It usually appears at the beginning of the “transitional phase,” which starts around one-year of age and usually ends by four-years of age. This phase is when children transition from being a dependent infant to being an independent toddler or pre-schooler. It is during this time they are learning all kinds of independence skills, such as: how to eat, dress, talk, walk, and self-soothe.
Separation anxiety is often a part of this phase, because of something called “object permanence.” In simple terms, before the age of about one-year-old, your baby didn’t have object permanence. If you were out of sight, you were out of mind, so to speak.
As infants develop “representational thinking,” they can think about you even when you aren’t there. It can be a frightening thought for young children, who are still dependent and well bonded, to realize their parent(s) are gone. Since they also don’t understand time and their sense of the world is still very small (about as far as they can see), not knowing where their parents are or how long they’ll be gone adds to their anxiety.
The good news is that you can help toddlers work through this phase in a loving, less stressful way.
Situations That May Cause A Toddler’s Separation Anxiety
There are various situations that can trigger separation anxiety. The most common one is when children don’t want parents to leave for an outing or work, or to be left with another caregiver.
At these times, the parent may be tempted so sneak away while the caregiver distracts the toddler. Although this may be a quick fix, it can backfire, because the parent seems to suddenly disappear. This can increase or prolong separation anxiety.
Letting children “cry it out” can be frightening and cause children to fear being alone or even destroy their trust in the parent, so children eventually “give up” on the parent.
Effective Responses to A Toddler’s Separation Anxiety
- When children have a hard time making transitions to new activities, be encouraging and back off when you need to, so you don’t push them too hard. Limit the number of transitions children must endure. Explain what will happen next and allow time for children to end one activity before moving to the next. If your children are younger, use tangible time references they can understand.
- When parents are leaving the children, it’s important they don’t sneak away. It’s helpful for you, the caregiver, to have already started playing or being involved with the child, before the parent starts to leave. Once she is engaged with you, the parent can tell the child they are leaving, reassure them they will return, and leave them in a loving way, with smiles and waves. If the child fusses, the parent still needs to leave and the caregiver can attempt to re-involve the child with what they were doing. You want the parents’ departure to be a short but loving goodbye, not a long, drawn-out process; this will be easiest for everyone.
- Acknowledge the child’s feelings. Even if the child is pre-verbal, noticing and verbalizing the child’s feelings in a calm, reassuring tone of voice can be extremely helpful for the child to hear. It also teaches the child feeling words. As children improve their emotional vocabulary, they will use words more often to express their feelings, instead of acting them out. When parents leave the child, say, “It’s okay to miss your mommy. She will be thinking of you too.” When children are clingy, say “You like knowing I’m here, huh?”
- Set limits or express concerns. Be firm and kind about how you state your intentions. Pat the child’s backs or stroke their hair, without picking up the child. This gives them reassurance without giving them the message that you will hold them or carry them constantly.
- Redirect behavior. Although distracting children is a short-term fix, if that’s all you do, it teaches them to avoid their feelings and problems. You can help children develop the internal skills they need to move through their scary feelings and feel empowered, capable and confident.
- When parents leave children in your care, start by having them leave for just 15 minutes (maybe the parent just takes some alone time in their room). When the child handles that, parents can leave for longer periods of time. This teaches children the parent will return. As the caregiver, reassure children that the parents will return when it is time and not when their behavior dictates it. This may prevent legitimate separation anxiety from turning into intentional efforts to manipulate the adults.
- When children are uncomfortable in an unfamiliar setting, suggest that they can “just try” something new. If children are hesitant and truly scared of new experiences, you can nudge and encourage them to take the next step. This can help ease them into a new idea or experience. If children are told they are a “big boy” or “big girl” they can actually feel pressured to grow up… and most people resist pressure. Read their reactions and be ready to back off a bit or slowly ease them into a new situation.
- When following through with children who are clingy, avoid getting into power struggles with “you can’t touch me anymore” or “I said you had to stop now.” Just gently put them down and involve them in an activity with you, saying, “We can be together this way.” Then follow through in a calm, respectful, matter-of-fact way.
When dealing with toddlers’ separation anxiety, remember to nudge and encourage children, while avoiding pushing them too far, too quickly. Children need to learn healthy ways to separate from their parents while still feeling comforted in the process. Focus on how you can help the children ease their upset feelings while developing the internal skills they need to become more secure and independent.
As they get used to the routine, they will cry less often. With time, you will find children work through their separation in quicker, healthier ways when you handle the situation lovingly and helpfully.
Learn more tips to help both you and your nanny family by checking out more of SitterCycle’s knowledgeable blogs![author image=”http://sittercycle.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/photo-1.jpg” ]Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is the author of the award-winning book, The Parent’s Toolshop and president of Parent’s Toolshop Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. She has 30 years’ experience as a top-rated speaker and parenting expert to the media worldwide, including serving as the Co-Producer and Parenting Expert for the Emmy-nominated Ident-a-Kid television series. She has dozens of multimedia resources that support and educate parents and other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.org.[/author]