Separation Anxiety: Making It Easier for Everyone
No healthy toddler can avoid going through the difficult process of separation and individuation. You cannot stay with your child every minute of every day and even if you could, that wouldn't take care of everything. Separation anxiety stems from the conflict between your child's urge for independence and her need for security. You can't make that conflict go away no matter what you do. But you can help your child in her struggle with that conflict.
First of all, try not to get annoyed by your toddler's whining and clinging. Instead, take it as a compliment. If you had failed to form a warm and loving relationship with your child, she probably wouldn't care if you left. So bear with the tears and tantrums. The fact that your toddler makes such a fuss when you leave shows that she loves you.
Try to avoid making major lifestyle changes during your child's second year. Putting him into a different situation will dramatically increase his insecurity and separation. For example, if you can manage it, put off taking a job that requires you to change your child's day-care provider (or put him in day care for the first time) until after your child's second birthday.
Probably the most important thing you can do to ease your child's anxiety about separation is to offer her a balance between freedom and security. Independence springs from the combination of these two conditions: having the opportunity to venture off on one's own and feeling safe enough to do it.
If you increase your toddler's freedom but deny her a sense of security, your child, filled with anxiety, will flounder. (So don't just leave your toddler alone in her room for extended periods of time thinking it will make her more independent. It won't.)
On the other hand, if you provide your child with plenty of security but little freedom, your child will likely become either extremely timid or very rebellious. Either way, you will transform your child's struggle for eventual and inevitable independence into a hard-fought battle.
Because neither freedom nor security alone will facilitate your child's independence, you need to strive for a balance between the two:
- Try to be there for your child whenever he needs you. You're still the "home base." Whenever your toddler asks for it, he needs to know that you will give him the security he needs. This knowledge will in turn bolster your child's courage to venture out independently.
- At the same time, provide your toddler with safe environments that allow him almost free reign.
- When separation anxiety seems particularly painful for your child, pamper him to help him feel more secure. Your toddler may need a little babying, which is fine as long as it doesn't go on forever. Treat him just as you would if he were sick: Shower him with extra attention and care.
- Your toddler's anxiety may lead to nightmares or sleep disturbances-especially the obvious one of not being able to get to sleep without you in the room, preferably holding him. He may kick and scream and cry for hours if you leave him alone in his crib. If so, give yourself permission to sit beside him until he falls asleep; do this for a week or so. Then, as his anxiety begins to wane a bit, gradually return to the sleep routines that allow you more freedom of movement.