Mom's hospitalization takes toll on toddler's ability to separate

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 3, 2011 06:00 AM

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Barbara,

I was hospitalized for 3 months for a pregnancy and left my 2 year old in the care of my brother and sister-in-law. Since I've returned from the hospital, she can't leave me for a minute. I can't get to the bathroom without her following and screaming. I understand that she has been traumatized by my leaving her for so long and she probably thinks that if I am out of her sight, I'll leave her again. However, I've been home for over a month now. When will she begin to trust that I won't leave her again? BTW, she has been diagnosed with Pervasive Developmental Disorder. I'm wondering when this anxiety might calm down. I appreciate your help.

From: Imashaal, Annandale, Va.

Dear Imashaal,

There's no time table for when she will begin to trust you again. This is a process that will play out over many months, not weeks or days. That she has developmental challenges only exacerbates the problem, but you don't need me to tell you that.

I can understand that this is difficult for you, but the best advice I can give is for you to put yourself in her shoes (which it sounds like you're doing) and have tremendous patience with her. It will pay off in the end -- you may need to remind yourself of that several times a day! -- even if the end is not predictable or in sight. If you push her to separate before she is ready, it will only make the process last longer and be more difficult.

That doesn't mean you have to spend every waking moment with her. Begin with small steps and keep in mind that a child this age has no sense of time. For instance:

When you go to the bathroom, tell her, "Mommy needs to go to the bathroom alone; you can wait on this side of the door, and we can sing/talk through the door."

When dad comes home, from work tell her, "This is time for you and daddy to play, while I rest in my bedroom." (If dad isn't in the picture, this can happen with another adult in her life.) If necessary, they can play in the same room with you, while you rest quietly, and then move to another room, eventually to the outdoors and maybe even away from the house. Keep the time short at first, five minutes can seem like a long time to a child like this.

Since she's been diagnosed with PDD, I assume you are getting some professional guidance. Be sure to talk to that person about this as well.

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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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