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Helping Your Toddler Overcome Separation Anxiety

Nov 22, 2016

Anxiety has become more of a concern lately with young children. When children transition to a new environment with new rules it is quite naturally difficult for toddlers, and often results in separation anxiety.  While some anxiety is completely natural and expected, if excessive anxiety is unaddressed it can become increasingly difficult to overcome and may create more problems. Anxiety must be dealt with directly by reinforcing connection rather than separation. 

Because not all children are the same, different methods may be used to help a child move past this anxiety, helping then transition more comfortably to being in new situations and away from their parents.  In every case, establishing trust, security, and dependability helps a child deal with the difficulty of an eventual separation.

Parent educator Donna Holloran explains that preparing the child to know you are leaving may help them transition while minimizing anxiety. It’s important to tell the child beforehand that you are leaving, where you will be, and that you will be back. Explaining to the child that your absence is not forever acknowledges the child’s feelings, allowing them to prepare for separation. During this time, it is also important to offer reassurance that leaving is not permanent, and that everything will be fine.  

This kind of trust can also be built by creating more confidence in children that their parents will return. Psychologist Gordon Neufeld explains that parents may develop this dependability by leaving for short periods of time, such as a few minutes, then returning with reassurance.  As the child grows accustomed to parental absence, he learns that separation is not forever.  Once this feeling is established, parents may leave for longer periods of time.

Parenting consultant Barbara Olinger also urges parents to make sure communication with the toddler regard the separation is done confidently and respectfully. This will help the child develop greater trust in the parent and may help them better overcome the emotional difficulty they are facing.

D’Lynda Kaplan also encourages parents to help with separation anxiety by normalizing the transition.  Instead of making the separation an event requiring lots of attention, parents may choose to reassure the child without expressing undue concern. The child should see their parents as happy, confident, and unbothered by the separation.  This tells the child nothing is wrong. Taking emotional cues from the parent, the child then feels more at ease when left in the care of others.

All of these approaches require strength and confidence from the parent.  Whether reassuring through preparation or normalizing absence, parents must express certainty and control. Children depend on their parents for reassurance that everything will be okay.  If a child senses a parent is nervous about becoming separated, they will learn that things may not be okay, which creates anxiety.  A strong, confident parent becomes the foundation for a child’s sense of security.


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