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3 Lessons About Separation Anxiety in Toddlerhood

Did you know that if you Google "Separation Anxiety," nearly every site you come across will say that the average age for children to experience such anxiety is around 10 to 18 months? I know this because I've spent a lot of time Googling. My little one is now 2 and 1/2 years old (32 months, if you want to get technical) and still suffers from what others might refer to as pretty severe separation anxiety.

OK, so others have totally referred to it as just that.

To be fair, her separation anxiety is mostly under control when we are within our routine. She rarely freaks out when I drop her off at daycare anymore, and usually, if a babysitter we know comes to the house and she is given fair warning that I'll be leaving, her tears subside pretty quickly.

But otherwise, she tends to melt down whenever Mommy tries to leave the room—a fact that is only made worse if we are outside our normal routine or element, such as being out of town for a weekend with friends. In that case, I'm lucky if I can pee without her repeatedly hurling herself at the door until I come out.

It's not fun to hear your child's wails for any reason, and it's especially not fun when people are looking at you amidst those wails and whispering, "Shouldn't she be over that by now?"

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The answer is, yes, according to Google, she probably should be. But she's not. And here we are.

Lesson Number 1: You're Not Alone

Google "Separation Anxiety in Toddlers" and you'll get a host of other links. Most of them refer to whatever is going on as a fleeting stage; it's something that crops up suddenly, may last up to a few weeks, but then just as suddenly disappears.

That's not what we're dealing with. My daughter's separation anxiety just never ended.

Still, digging deeper, I've come to realize that what we're experiencing isn't exactly unheard of either. And there may be some underlying reasons for what's going on. The fact that my little girl is adopted could apparently be a contributing factor, for instance. Or that I'm a single mom, so "You and Me Against the World" is kind of our life motto.

The point is, all my research has led me to believe I'm not alone in what I'm seeing. Which is, at the very least, comforting.

She is genuinely panicked that I might leave and not come back, which means tough love in this situation isn't going to solve anything.

Lesson Number 2: Everyone (and I Mean Everyone) Will Have an Opinion

Those opinions will range from all the things you are doing to contribute to your child's separation anxiety ("You spend too much time with her," "You're too connected," "You keep making excuses,") to vehement theories about what you should be doing to fix it.

And here's the thing: There are a lot of varying theories about how to best treat separation anxiety—like, a lot—with little to no research backing up one theory or another as superior. Most of them are based on whatever parenting philosophy you prescribe to. And parents tend to be pretty fierce about the parenting philosophies they deem to be "best." So if your kid is doing something "abnormal" and you don't subscribe to their same philosophy … it's clearly all your fault.

Deal with it. You weren't attachment enough, or logical enough, or you helicoptered too much. Either way, you're a shitty parent.

Lesson Number 3: You Have to Follow Your Gut

The problem? It's impossible to subscribe to every single parenting philosophy out there. Which means that no matter what you are doing to combat this issue, someone will think you are doing it wrong. And there is nothing you can do about that beyond tuning out the noise (and possibly telling them all to kick rocks).

Easier said than done, I know. As someone who cares far too much about what others think of her, I definitely struggle with this. But ultimately, this is my kid we're talking about. And I have to do what I think is best for her.

For me, that meant visiting with a behavioral therapist and working together to brainstorm solutions. The first thing she taught me is that what my little girl is dealing with is a true anxiety. She's not manipulating me or trying to "win" by hurling herself to the floor in tears. She is genuinely panicked, for whatever reason, that I might leave and not come back, which means tough love in this situation (walking away without goodbyes and refusing to return until the tears have subsided) isn't going to solve anything. In fact, it might just make the problem worse.

Instead, our behavioral therapist has recommended this:

1. Always say goodbye and tell her where I'm going.

I have to build trust with her, not erode it.

Always. Even if she has no concept of time yet, she does know when I just disappear without explanation. And that only feeds into her fears that I'm not coming back. So "tricking" her and walking out the door when she's not looking? Not a solution. I have to build trust with her, not erode it.

2. Make the goodbyes brief.

The longer we draw them out (me cuddling and attending to her tears) the worse the situation becomes. So, whenever I leave her anywhere now, I get down on her level and tell her where I'm going, how long I'll be gone, what she'll be doing while I'm there, and most importantly, that Mommy will always come back. Then, I give her a quick hug and walk out the door. Even if she's already a puddle of tears on the floor.

3. Don't cut anything short.

I'll admit, I'm a mom who has a really hard time staying away when my kid is struggling. Like, really hard. But our behavioral therapist has been clear that I need to take care of me too and that my girl really does need to learn I'll always come back, which requires me to stay gone for a period of time first. So whether I left to see a movie with friends or to take a quick swim, I see those activities through to completion. Then I come running back.

4. Don't intentionally draw out the absence either.

Some theories would have you staying away until your kid pulls it together. Well, mine has cried for hours straight before, which would leave me standing outside a door, waiting for her to pass out before I could come home. Implausible and, according to our behavioral therapist, unnecessary. I don't need to extend her suffering to prove a point. That's not good for either of us.

5. Reconnect and remind.

Whenever I return, I get down on her level again and look her in the eyes as I say, "See? Mommy always comes back." Usually, that's all it takes. She's back to happily playing in minutes.

Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

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These are the steps we have been going through for the last few months now. And some days (even some weeks) are better than others. Has there been a miraculous overnight recovery of separation anxiety? No, but we're working on it. The key, as our behavioral therapist explains, is consistency. So that's what I've remained focused on. Consistency. I also try to remember that what my girl is struggling with is a true anxiety; this isn't a bratty move meant to control me or the situation. So it's not something I can just force out of her. She needs empathy and compassion with this, not tough love and frustration.

As frustrating as it can be. For all involved.

Maybe the same series of solutions makes sense to you and seems like the way to handle your own toddler's separation anxiety. Or maybe you've found another set of steps that work better for you, your child and your situation. If you have, I say all power to you! You know your child best, and this parenting thing is tough enough without all the unsolicited opinions about how you're effing it all up.

Find a solution that feels right for you, and just remember that your kiddo will eventually grow out of this.

Or at least, that's what I keep telling myself.

Photograph by: Leslie Meadow Photography

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