Easing Young Children’s Separation Anxiety

by | Oct 13, 2013 | Parenting

Tips to say goodbye and help kids feel more secure in your absence

Dear Dr. Borba,

I’m starting back to work a couple days a week and I’m in a panic. My toddler clings and cries so hard when I leave just to go to the grocery store that breaks my heart. Is there anyway to help my daughter feel more secure now?

Thank you!

Susan M., from Reno Nevada

Leaving our children is tough, but when we know they feel insecure it can be heartbreaking. Do know there are solutions you can do now to help ease the pain and help your young child feel more secure in your absence. The key is to slowly start implementing these tips way several weeks before you have to finally go back to work. Find what works for your family and then turn the strategy into a goodbye routine. Routines and structure are known quantities to help kids feel more secure.

Step 1. Prepare Your Child For Short Goodbyes

Provide a “lovey”

Give a security blanket, cuddly stuffed animal or some kind of “security substitute” for your baby to use in your absence. It is a way for your toddler to soothe herself when you’re not there. And here is interesting research on the power of those most-loved security objects.

REALITY CHECK: Does your toddler have a comfy? If not, you may want to consider giving her one now to help ease separation anxieties. For over three decades Richard H. Passman, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, has studied children and security objects. His research finds that tots who are more insecure but strongly attached to their beloved blankies, seem to adjust better in stressful situations. Those adored blankies and well-worn teddy bears (or whatever else is your little one has latched onto) really are great security builders, and that’s regardless of just how strong your child is attached to you. But an even more interesting study finding is this, If you had a blankie as a tot, your child is more than likely have one as well. Those comforting memories of our security blankets just never seem to fade.

For a slightly older child, cut a corner of the blanket for her to put into her pocket and carry. It works wonders for kindergarteners who have relied on that blankey but can’t carry it into that classroom. For an older child, try finding a special small object like a pebble or shell (or whatever). The child puts it in his pocket and each time he touches it, tell him you’re thinking about him.

Create secure transitions

Start several weeks before you leave by practicing good-byes with your little one. Start with just saying goodbye when it’s just the two of you. Then just leave a bit to go to the next room and pop back in with a big hello. Your child will begin to realize “Mommy does return.”

Step 2. Gradually Introduce the Child to the Caregiver 

Find a caregiver now

Help your child learn to trust the caregiver with the three of you together. Just little doses of getting to know the new giver ahead of time will help when the official goodbye finally comes. The sitter, you and child can do brief little activities together. Your goal is to allow the sitter to slowly have more and more alone time with your child.

Pass on “what works” to your caregiver

You know your child better than anyone. So pass on your child’s special signals to that sitter. What works to soothe your child? What is your child’s sleep, eating and play routine? What comforts your child? If your child speaks or uses sign, translate any words that only you know to your sitter and day-care prover. If you are dropping your child off to the sitter’s home, bring a few of your child’s comfort objects.

Record your voice

Sing your little one’s favorite song or reading Goodnight Moon or Pat the Bunny or other favorite song so the caregiver can play it when you leave. The next time you’re singing with your child just push the record button on that tape recorder. Then leave it with care-sitter or grandma to use. This idea works especially well if you have to leave on a longer trip.

Skyping or calling at a set time can also help. Draw a clock face with the time you will call each night you are away and make sure you call at that set time. Routines help children!

Step 3. Use the “Right Way” to Say Goodbye

Don’t dawdle – or give in!

Your child’s tears and wails can wear you down. But studies find children’s anxiety will actually increase if you draw out your separation or make too big of a deal about your leaving. So be definite about leaving –and no changing your mind. Toddlers, preschoolers and school-age kids alike (and let’s throw teens into the mix!) are smart and will quickly figure out what antics will work, and will pull those next time around to make you stay.

Hold back those tears!

Your distress will distress your child. A young child can read your sad concerned emotions and copy them. It’s best to have a cool and confident approach (even if you have to fake it). That look will be easier on your child.

Don’t sneak out!

Doing so only increases your child’s anxiety. Say goodbye and then do leave.

Cuddle, hug and support when you return

Greet your child when you return. “Mommy’s back!” “It’s Dad! Let’s hug!” Then cuddle. Coo. Tickle. Hug. Play fingerplays. Sing. But if you stick to that same positive send off routine and then your “Parent’s back” return, your child will slowly come to recognize that you are coming back and feel more and more secure in your absence.

If the anxiety continues despite your efforts, please do seek the advice of a mental health provider or your pediatrician. Certain ages are more likely to trigger “separation anxiety” but the angst will gradually wane. Children who have experienced recent trauma or illness are more susceptible to anxiety. Is there something going on at home that could be triggering the concerns? If so, tune in closer to your child and seek counseling if it continues or increases.

All the best!


Portions of this article are adapted from my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries (Jossey-Bass) available for order now.

Follow me on twitter @micheleborba or on my blog at MicheleBorba

Passman research at University of Wisconsin: F. Fitter, “Security Blankets,” Psychology Today, Mar/Apr 2005