Separation Anxiety In Toddlers: When Does It Start And How To Handle

How To Help Ease Your Toddler’s Separation Anxiety — Plus, When It Starts

November 30, 2020 Updated March 25, 2021

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You’ve surely heard of the terrible twos, right? Well, we regret to inform you that they get more terrible when comes to separation anxiety in toddlers. True, your little one might be taking their first steps and asserting their own independence — but that doesn’t mean they’re totally ready for separation from you just yet. Even when they’ve successfully managed to be apart from you for a short time (think a quick visit with the grandparents), you might notice them cling to you as soon as you return. It’s as if they’re saying, Never let me go again.

As is the case with separation anxiety in babies, separation anxiety in toddlers stems from their need for the stability and security that you provide. However, what’s different with toddlers as opposed to infants is that their burgeoning independence might wax and wane. One minute they’re totally fine with you leaving them with a babysitter for the day, and the next they could scream their head off at the mere idea of you leaving the room at nighttime.

Welcome to separation anxiety in toddlers; we’ll be your guide. Keep reading to find out what to expect, and how to make your way through this admittedly tricky developmental milestone.

What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety, also known as separation protest, occurs when your child becomes aware of object permanence — that something continues to exist when it can’t be seen or heard, including their parents. So, they know that when you leave the room or drop them off at a childcare facility, you’re still “around” somewhere. However, your toddler doesn’t understand the concept of time. They have no idea when you’ll be back! A few minutes can seem like hours, and a few hours can seem like forever. As a result, they feel insecure and can get scared since they know they depend on you. That’s why they break down when you tell them “night-night,” or cling to your legs to try to keep you from leaving the house.

Separation anxiety in children typically occurs around six to nine months of age, peaks around 15 to 18 months, and drops off sometime around three years old. In some cases, a child may skip separation anxiety in infancy and start demonstrating anxiety around 15 months. Other parents might see their children experience anxiety as infants and get better with it, only for separation anxiety to resurface at 18 months… and then come back again around age two. Some children might require less dependence on their parents at age three, while another three-year-old could still feel the ache of separation anxiety. Every child is different.

Do toddlers experience this at night, too?

Separation anxiety in toddlers at night is pretty common. Lots of kids rebel at night with separation anxiety — which, in turn, causes a major strain on your toddler’s bedtime and can lead to full-out tantrums. Naps also become a big battleground for toddlers. You might find that your little one simply refuses to sleep and will cry and scream when told it’s nap time. Oy.

How do you handle separation anxiety in toddlers?

So, what do you do when your little one is having a full-on meltdown every time you want to leave them at daycare or even the room for a few minutes? Here are a few tips for getting through this phase.

  • Establish a bedtime routine. Making your toddler’s bedtime routine something that soothes them is a good way to ease their separation anxiety. A few ideas: draw a bath, brush those cute little “teefies,” read a book, and squeeze in a little cuddling with them and their favorite toy. Just make sure it’s a routine that’s consistent and predictable. That’s what your child craves. So make sure you stick to a timetable. Babies can’t tell time, but they can recognize a routine.
  • Keep your goodbye short and sweet. Whether you’re dropping off your kid at daycare or with your parents, make sure your goodbyes are short and sweet. Leaving them is like ripping off a bandaid — the quicker you do it, the shorter it will hurt in the long run. Reassure them you’re coming back shortly and that you leaving isn’t a big deal. Also, a quick goodbye doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be super affectionate. (Pile on those kisses and hugs, but quickly.) And whatever you do, try not to show your own anxiety about leaving them. Kids easily pick up on emotions. If they feel that you’re upset or sad, that will only upset them more.
  • Don’t sneak away. Many parents might think that slipping out the door without saying a word is the best way to handle separation anxiety. Surprise, though! That’s not a great tactic since it adds to your child’s sense of insecurity and uncertainty. And honestly, that’s understandable. Imagine knowing your parents are with you one minute, and then suddenly they’re gone and you don’t know why or how. That’s scary to a child. Instead, make sure that they acknowledge that you’re leaving (with love, of course), and let them watch you walk out the door.
  • Acknowledge their anxiety… but don’t give in. It’s important to hold space for your child’s feelings. Separation anxiety is a very upsetting experience for them. When they’re sobbing or screaming at bedtime, comfort them and let them know that you’re close by. Having said that, do your best to resist indulging them. No more songs, games, or book reading. That will only create bad habits, causing them to think, “Well, if I keep crying at bedtime, I get more time to play.” Keep this interaction comforting, yes, but also short and sweet.
  • Leave your kid when they’re happy. It’s hard to plan your life around your toddler’s mood, but if you can, it might help reduce the tears. If you need to run out for errands, leave while your baby is watching their show or eating their favorite snack. Sometimes being in a good mood makes it easier for them to see you go.
  • Keep your promises. If you tell your child you’re going to pick them up or do something with them after you’ve been away, follow through. When your nugget can trust you, they become more confident and comfortable with your absence. 

What is stranger anxiety?

If separation anxiety is stressing you out, welcome to stranger anxiety. The same way your child may cry when you leave the room, they can have a similar reaction when an unfamiliar person comes near. It could seem a bit frustrating at first (especially if you’re trying to find a babysitter). But it’s also a display of growth. Your child is developing facial recognition and understanding who is familiar and who isn’t. It usually starts at around eight to nine months and goes away sometime around two-years-old. Each child shows stranger anxiety differently, so your kid could have a full-blown meltdown to just an angry little face.

Think of it like this: Even adults have their own way of dealing with people they don’t know. So, when your child cries over meeting people or treats their grandparents like strangers, try not to make it a big deal. Just do your best to be a calming presence. With time, they’ll come to recognize that newcomers can be trusted, too.