Separation anxiety in a 2-year-old

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  May 3, 2010 06:00 AM

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Barbara,

I have a question about separation anxiety.

My daughter turned 2 in January and we have been having a problem recently with daycare drop-off. For a while she was doing great and recently has started getting scared, nervous, and very clingy. My husband and I are doing our best to keep the goodbye routine very consistent - we find a favorite doll in her classroom for her to hold, we read one quick story, and then we kiss her goodbye. We talk ahead of time about how things will go so she feels prepared. Other than drop-off things are going great at school. She loves her teachers and her friends - she talks so happily about all her experiences when I pick her up.

However, at home she has become more mommy-needy recently and at bedtime we've been hearing "I'm scared" a lot. She doesn't have a way to express what it is that she's scared of but we try to calm her with, "You're OK, teddy bear (or baby doll or whoever) will keep you company, goodnight." We keep our bedtime routine very consistent as well so she knows what to expect. Parenting is tough! Just as soon as I have a handle on it, things change and I find myself figuring everything out all over again!

Thanks for your advice.

From: JeLo33, Boston

 
Hi JeLo33,

This reminds me of last week's question about 2-year-olds; yes, most likely this is a stage  but, just to be sure: Are there any changes going on in your family? Job loss/change? New baby coming? Grandparent sick? What about at daycare? Has a favorite playmate or teacher left? A new child entered the mix?Don't just make assumptions; ask the teachers. Any of these events is enough to throw a child off and make her unsettled and fearful.

What you've already hit upon is a great antidote, probably the single best thing you can do: Talking ahead of time about what, exactly, will happen is probably the single best way to help her. ( "First, we'll get out of the car at day care, then we'll go up the walk and in the door and we'll see Mrs. D., and she'll say, 'Good morning to you!'") Similarly, talking at the end of the day about what happened that day, including the drop off and the pick up, is very helpful. It enables a child to develop trust and to see that there's a sequence to the day.

If you can't pin the anxiety to anything new or different in her life, it's mostly likely due to a new level of cognition that has kicked in in which she's able to wonder, what is mom doing when I'm away? Does she need me? Does she miss me?  Think of it as a delayed reaction to separation. At pick-up, even if she's angry at you, tell her, "I missed you and I know you missed me. We always have each other at the end of the day."

When she says she's scared, it's possible she doesn't mean she's scared in the way you understand it. She's heard the words and she sees it gets her your attention. I'm not saying she's being manipulative, exactly; I don't believe that's possible quite yet. I think of it as an extension of her ability to reason.

Even though her clingy behavior is regressive, handle it as if it's happening for the first time. When she wants to stay at your side, tell her, "I can see you want to stay right next to me, all the time! I'm just going to be right in the next room, but if you want to keep me company/help me, you're more than welcome." If she gets bored, tell her, "I can see you're getting bored and I haven't finished my job. Do you want to go in the next room and play and then we can be together again when I finish?" In both cases, you're identifying and labeling her feelings for her. You're also being matter-of-fact and non-judgmental, and you're not reinforcing the behavior. You're kindly, gently reminder her that she can have your attention without clinging. No matter what the regressive behavior is --wanting to sit in your lap, needing more of you at bedtime -- the first best response is to give her what she needs. "I love to cuddle with you, too!" Then at some point, set the limit firmly, "I know you can go to sleep by yourself. Here's your teddy, your X and your Y. I'll check back in two mintues/ five minutes/ eight minutes."

What you're currently doing sounds like you're on the right track. The trick is not to get side-lined by your own frustration and tiredness!

I answer a question from a reader every weekday. If you want help with some aspect of child-rearing, just write to me here.

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6 comments so far...
  1. I agree with talking about what's going to happen ahead of time but I am wondering if the rest of the good bye routine is only making the separation harder. If you go to drop her off and you are finding a doll and reading a story, it might drag on the anxiety. I found with my son that when I dropped him off I would kiss and hug him good bye and go. If he cried, it lasted only moments and then the teachers got him engaged in an activity.

    Posted by Heather May 3, 10 12:02 PM
  1. I agree with Heather. Your child doesn't need the doll and the story before you leave her or the additional time for you to deal with the "scared" routine @ bedtime.

    I know you mean well but all you are doing is reinforcing your child's anxiety that she might have reason to be anxious and that she can't handle separation from you successfully by herself.

    Posted by Leah May 3, 10 06:55 PM
  1. I have to agree with Heather that I think you are drawing out the dropping off process too long. And with Barbara that 2 year olds don't mean the same thing you do when they say "I'm scared". All I can say is "this to shall pass". I think its important not to make mountains out molehills. I think Barbara's advice is excellent.

    If a story helps, here's mine. When my daughter was 3, I had another baby. Then we had to change day cares unexpectedly. Then my mother passed away. A lot for a 3, going on 4 year old. She cried almost every day she was in the new day care. It was quite a hellish time for all of us. We were eventually able to go back to our old day care, which obviously helped, but it was a long few months.

    Today my daughter is a beautiful, well adjusted, social, outgoing 17 year old. She has almost no recollection of this experience and when you ask her now why she acted this way she says she's not sure, but she thinks it was because she was upset about my mother dying.

    Good luck!

    Posted by ash May 4, 10 09:53 AM
  1. I think the other posters are well-intentioned and trying to be helpful. But Barbara isn't telling her to make any of the changes that you guys are suggesting. She begins with, "It's probably just a phase" and ends with "What you're currently doing sounds like you're on the right track". The message seems to be more along the lines of "keep doing what you're doing and try not to get discouraged" rather than "you're making it worse". And I agree with that message. There's more than one way to raise a well-adjusted child. And sometimes what worked best for one family isn't what works best for the next. Sounds to me like she's doing a great job!

    Posted by Christy January 3, 11 05:26 PM
  1. I agree that all children are different and require different methods of teaching. My 2 year old is very clingy. Cries when dropped of at daycare, will not stay with even my parents for long periods of time. What works for me is, I talk to her the whole way there, telling her where we are going, and have her give me directions on how to get there.( she does very well with this) once there she has to lead me to her room and she only get anxious as I'm leaving. I give her a kiss, tell her I love her and tell her to enjoy her day and I will see her in the afternoon. She still cries, but I leave knowing that in about 30 seconds she will be running and playing with her friends. Upon pick up, I pick her up, tell her I missed her and can't wait to spend the evening with her. She again gives me directions home. We discuss our day over dinner, down to what toys she played with and what she had for lunch and snack. I even find out who got time out...lol... she now asks me about my day, often before I can get out a word.

    Posted by cindy August 12, 11 10:58 AM
  1. I agree that all children are different and require different methods of teaching. My 2 year old is very clingy. Cries when dropped of at daycare, will not stay with even my parents for long periods of time. What works for me is, I talk to her the whole way there, telling her where we are going, and have her give me directions on how to get there.( she does very well with this) once there she has to lead me to her room and she only get anxious as I'm leaving. I give her a kiss, tell her I love her and tell her to enjoy her day and I will see her in the afternoon. She still cries, but I leave knowing that in about 30 seconds she will be running and playing with her friends. Upon pick up, I pick her up, tell her I missed her and can't wait to spend the evening with her. She again gives me directions home. We discuss our day over dinner, down to what toys she played with and what she had for lunch and snack. I even find out who got time out...lol... she now asks me about my day, often before I can get out a word.

    Posted by cindy August 12, 11 10:59 AM
 
6 comments so far...
  1. I agree with talking about what's going to happen ahead of time but I am wondering if the rest of the good bye routine is only making the separation harder. If you go to drop her off and you are finding a doll and reading a story, it might drag on the anxiety. I found with my son that when I dropped him off I would kiss and hug him good bye and go. If he cried, it lasted only moments and then the teachers got him engaged in an activity.

    Posted by Heather May 3, 10 12:02 PM
  1. I agree with Heather. Your child doesn't need the doll and the story before you leave her or the additional time for you to deal with the "scared" routine @ bedtime.

    I know you mean well but all you are doing is reinforcing your child's anxiety that she might have reason to be anxious and that she can't handle separation from you successfully by herself.

    Posted by Leah May 3, 10 06:55 PM
  1. I have to agree with Heather that I think you are drawing out the dropping off process too long. And with Barbara that 2 year olds don't mean the same thing you do when they say "I'm scared". All I can say is "this to shall pass". I think its important not to make mountains out molehills. I think Barbara's advice is excellent.

    If a story helps, here's mine. When my daughter was 3, I had another baby. Then we had to change day cares unexpectedly. Then my mother passed away. A lot for a 3, going on 4 year old. She cried almost every day she was in the new day care. It was quite a hellish time for all of us. We were eventually able to go back to our old day care, which obviously helped, but it was a long few months.

    Today my daughter is a beautiful, well adjusted, social, outgoing 17 year old. She has almost no recollection of this experience and when you ask her now why she acted this way she says she's not sure, but she thinks it was because she was upset about my mother dying.

    Good luck!

    Posted by ash May 4, 10 09:53 AM
  1. I think the other posters are well-intentioned and trying to be helpful. But Barbara isn't telling her to make any of the changes that you guys are suggesting. She begins with, "It's probably just a phase" and ends with "What you're currently doing sounds like you're on the right track". The message seems to be more along the lines of "keep doing what you're doing and try not to get discouraged" rather than "you're making it worse". And I agree with that message. There's more than one way to raise a well-adjusted child. And sometimes what worked best for one family isn't what works best for the next. Sounds to me like she's doing a great job!

    Posted by Christy January 3, 11 05:26 PM
  1. I agree that all children are different and require different methods of teaching. My 2 year old is very clingy. Cries when dropped of at daycare, will not stay with even my parents for long periods of time. What works for me is, I talk to her the whole way there, telling her where we are going, and have her give me directions on how to get there.( she does very well with this) once there she has to lead me to her room and she only get anxious as I'm leaving. I give her a kiss, tell her I love her and tell her to enjoy her day and I will see her in the afternoon. She still cries, but I leave knowing that in about 30 seconds she will be running and playing with her friends. Upon pick up, I pick her up, tell her I missed her and can't wait to spend the evening with her. She again gives me directions home. We discuss our day over dinner, down to what toys she played with and what she had for lunch and snack. I even find out who got time out...lol... she now asks me about my day, often before I can get out a word.

    Posted by cindy August 12, 11 10:58 AM
  1. I agree that all children are different and require different methods of teaching. My 2 year old is very clingy. Cries when dropped of at daycare, will not stay with even my parents for long periods of time. What works for me is, I talk to her the whole way there, telling her where we are going, and have her give me directions on how to get there.( she does very well with this) once there she has to lead me to her room and she only get anxious as I'm leaving. I give her a kiss, tell her I love her and tell her to enjoy her day and I will see her in the afternoon. She still cries, but I leave knowing that in about 30 seconds she will be running and playing with her friends. Upon pick up, I pick her up, tell her I missed her and can't wait to spend the evening with her. She again gives me directions home. We discuss our day over dinner, down to what toys she played with and what she had for lunch and snack. I even find out who got time out...lol... she now asks me about my day, often before I can get out a word.

    Posted by cindy August 12, 11 10:59 AM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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