When saying goodbye is HARD—help your toddler manage separation anxiety

We can’t avoid separation, but we can help them learn how to cope.

When saying goodbye is HARD—help your toddler manage separation anxiety

My young daughter’s panicky shrieks of, “Mama no go!” and “stay Mama!” were part of the morning ritual as I left the house to go to work. Screaming and clinging to my legs, she tried to stop me with sheer toddler force. Her pleading voice would ring in my head throughout the day.

My anxiety and guilt clung to me while I worried about the developmental impact of the separation on her. Was our separation harmful in terms of her growth? What could I do to help ease her anxiety and upset?

Why is separation so hard?

Separation is provocative for young children because it is connected to their greatest need—attachment. The more immature they are, the greater their longing for contact and closeness because of dependency needs. They desperately need their relationships to work for them, because this ensures they will be taken care of.


Separation means facing the absence of their attachments, and the more dependent they are on them, the more anxiety they can experience as a result. It is their desire for contact and closeness that makes them miss us when we are gone. Attachment is the doorway through which separation anxiety opens up.

Young children are creatures of attachment and are not built for separation without some protest and the potentially the ensuing anxiety. Your child’s clinging, clutching, crying, and protests are meant to draw you near. Bedtime separation can also be heightened as they head into the final disconnect of the day.

The question is how to help them through the unavoidable separations that exist as part of life?

It doesn’t mean we can’t separate from them then, it just means we need to consider matters of attachment in doing so.

Children grow best when they feel the presence of an invisible attachment matrix surrounding them. When separation from their closest attachments is necessary, the best thing we can do is to give them alternative adult attachments to hang onto.

The challenge is children should not feel comfortable with people they do not know. Good attachment instincts will make a child shy away from people who are not sanctioned by their primary attachments. This helps to keep them safe and stay within their parent’s realm of influence.

When we lived in more intact villages, children often knew members in their community and formed relationships as a natural course of life. Parents didn’t need to work at building attachment villages and could take relationships for granted.

Today, the people who are often filling in for parents are ‘strangers’ to them.

The challenge is to help a child accept the substitute adults in their life by building strong relationships with them. A child’s relationship with their care provider helps reduce the separation anxiety by creating a sense of home.

What can be done to help reduce separation anxiety?

1. Introduce and matchmake children to their caretakers

The parent has a key role to play in cultivating a relationship between their child and a new care provider or teacher. The parent becomes a matchmaker working to create the conditions for the child and care provider to get to know and like each other. This typically starts with an introduction to the caretaker, pointing out similarities in interests and activities.

When the child sees that their parent is warm and friendly towards the care provider, their attachment instincts will start to accept this new person as part of their village.

Gradual entry and patience can help to slowly warm up the child and adult relationship, with trust building over time. The child’s separation anxiety will often decrease as they start to settle into the relationship with their care provider, feeling nourished and protected by their care taking.

If we want young children to feel at home with their substitutes, then we need to work at their relationship with each other, instead of trying to tackle a child’s separation anxiety head on.

One of the biggest challenges to development in young children today is the routine practice of matchmaking children to peers instead of adults in order to help them settle into new surroundings. There is a belief that children will learn social skills by being around other children. As a result, they are often pushed into relating to each other frequently, despite their immature form of interacting with one another. It is true that children can settle into new settings because of their attachments to peers, but the question is at what cost?

The clutching and clinging accompanying separation anxiety is now aimed at their peer who is ill suited for care taking with their own immaturity to deal with. Frustration can ensue between peers, especially if they feel they are not being offered the attention they are seeking.

The long term consequences and the fallout from kids peer attaching include a lack of receptivity to adult guidance, anxiety, and diminishing emotional expression. Children do best when they have adults they can turn to, and not when their peers are their best bet for comfort, contact, and closeness.

When helping a child with their goodbyes, we need to ensure we don’t place a peer in place of an adult to hold onto. Only mature, caring adult attachments can deliver a secure, safe connection that a young child needs.

2. Cultivate growth by deepening attachment

One of the best resolutions to separation anxiety is to grow children into independent functioning individuals. This is the overall goal of good development, but it takes time to get there, and young children are far from this. Children cannot be pushed to grow up, but a generous provision of care is the best way to get them there.

Our best bet to fuel growth is to provide generously for children’s dependence needs by providing undivided attention where possible and conveying through words and deeds that we are trustworthy when it comes to their care taking. When children feel their dependency needs are taken care of, the bias to become their own person and “do it myself” will open up. It is this bias to be one’s own person that launches them toward separate functioning. Without a strong home base, there is not sufficient freedom to grow into personhood.

By providing room for our children to grow free from distractions (e.g., technology, peers, structured activities), we are much more likely to help our kids in becoming separate beings who explore their own worlds.

It is care taking and growth that can deliver the ultimate resolution to separation anxiety in that one feels confident to stand on one’s own and navigate the world. Until that time comes our role is to help them hang onto adults who can deliver the conditions that free them up to grow.

3. Help them find their tears of missing

It may seem odd that one of the answers to separation anxiety is having sad tears about missing loved ones. There is a commonly held belief that tears and upset are a sign that something is wrong or harmful for the child. Feeling sad and crying is actually one of the most natural things for a child when faced with the things they can’t change or hold onto. One of the best predictors of mental health in an adolescent is actually the three-year-old who can find their tears of sadness about all the things they want but cannot have.

What we need to ensure is that there is someone there to collect a child’s tears help them express the sadness that is within.

Telling a child not to worry about it or not to cry when they are missing further diminishes their feelings and sense that a care provider can take care of them. Tears of upset are a natural course of life, and it was one of the best signs I had that my child felt comfortable with their ‘Mommy substitute.’ With enough tears and a consistent caring adult to help them, children can settle into their new relationship and surroundings.

4. Bridge the distance

The word goodbye signifies a parting or separation, but in many languages, the word actually means, “until we meet again.” This is what young children also need to hear when goodbyes are necessary. If we want to reduce separation anxiety we need to help our children face those fears until the next point of connection. This can be done by talking about when you will see them again and how you will spend time together. A child is then left to hold onto the next time of contact and closeness, instead of the distance between you.

Having children physically hold onto something associated with their parent can also be helpful in bridging the distance.

Giving them a locket with pictures of loved one, or little notes to be read throughout the day, helps them feel closer. One Mom put a picture of herself in a plastic bag and into her son’s back pocket before leaving for preschool. He said that whenever he missed her, he pulled out her picture and gave her “a kiss on the lips,” and that seemed to help a lot. Many items can be used to bridge the distance, as long as the child associates it with their parent, e.g., a keychain, a special rock and so on.

Separation anxiety is part of what comes in the wake of being apart from people you are attached to. The more immature and needing of care one is, the more stirred up by separation they can be. We shouldn’t hold it against young children but rather help them to hold onto us or another adult in our absence.

Their separation anxiety is a sign they are alarmed and in need to feel safer in their surroundings. There are some separations that are too much to ask a young child to bridge, and in the early years, the consistency and generosity of care are important in terms of overall development. Separations are unavoidable, but we can help them in saying goodbye when we take their attachment needs into our hands and cultivate villages to help us raise our children.

In This Article

    14 toys that will keep your kids entertained inside *and* outside

    They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

    With fall in full swing, most parents are fresh out of boxes to check on their "Fun Concierge" hit list. It's also the point of diminishing returns on investing in outside-only toys. So with that in mind, we've rounded up some of our favorite toys that are not only built to last but will easily make the transition from outdoor to indoor play. Even better, they're Montessori-friendly and largely open-ended so your kids can get a ton of use out of them.

    From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.

    Wooden doll stroller

    Janod wooden doll stroller

    Take their charges on a stroll around the block with this classic doll stroller. With the same versatility they're used to in their own ride, this heirloom quality carriage allows their doll or stuffy to face them or face the world.


    Detective set

    Plan Toys detective set

    This set has everything your little detective needs to solve whatever mystery they might encounter: an eye glasses, walkie-talkie, camera, a red lens, a periscope and a bag. Neighborhood watch? Watch out.


    Sand play set

    Plan Toys sand set

    Whether you're hitting the beach or the backyard sandbox, this adorable wooden sand set is ready for action. Each scoop has an embossed pattern that's perfect for sand stamping. They're also totally suitable for water play in the wild or the bathtub.


    Water play set

    Plan Toys water play set

    Filled with sand or water, this tabletop sized activity set keeps little ones busy, quiet and happy. (A mama's ideal trifecta 😉). It's big enough to satisfy their play needs but not so big it's going to flood your floors if you bring the fun inside on a rainy day.


    Mini golf set

    Plan Toys mini golf set

    Fore! This mini golf set is lawn and living room ready. Set up a backyard competition or incorporate into homeschooling brain breaks that shift focus and build concentration.


    Vintage scooter balance bike

    Janod retro scooter balance bike

    Pedals are so 2010. Balance bikes are the way to go for learning to ride a bike while skipping the training wheels stage altogether. This impossibly cool retro scooter-style is built to cruise the neighborhood or open indoor space as they're learning.


    Wooden rocking pegasus

    plan toys wooden rocking pegasus

    Your little will be ready to take flight on this fun pegasus. It gently rocks back and forth, but doesn't skimp on safety—its winged saddle, footrests and backrest ensure kids won't fall off whether they're rocking inside or outside.


    Croquet set

    Plan Toys croquet set

    The cutest croquet set we've ever seen! With adorable animal face wooden balls and a canvas bag for easy clean up, it's also crafted to stick around awhile. Round after round, it's great for teaching kiddos math and problem-solving skills as well.


    Wooden digital camera

    fathers factory wooden digital camera

    Kids get the chance to assemble the camera on their own then can adventure anywhere to capture the best moments. With two detachable magnetic lenses, four built-in filters and video recorder, your little photographer can tap into their creativity from summertime to the holidays.


    Wooden bulldozer toy

    plan toys wooden bulldozer toy

    Whether they're digging up sand in the backyad or picking up toys inside, kids can get as creative as they want picking up and moving things around. Even better? Its wooden structure means it's not an eye sore to look at wherever your digger drops it.


    Pull-along hippo

    janod toys pull along hippo toy

    There's just something so fun about a classic pull-along toy and we love that they seamlessly transition between indoor and outdoor play. Crafted from solid cherry and beechwood, it's tough enough to endure outdoor spaces your toddler takes it on.


    Baby forest fox ride-on

    janod toys baby fox ride on

    Toddlers will love zooming around on this fox ride-on, and it's a great transition toy into traditional balance bikes. If you take it for a driveway adventure, simply use a damp cloth to wipe down the wheels before bringing back inside.


    Balance board

    Plan Toys balance board

    Balance boards are a fabulous way to get the wiggles out. This one comes with a rope attachment, making it suitable for even the youngest wigglers. From practicing their balance and building core strength to working on skills that translate to skateboarding and snowboarding, it's a year-round physical activity that's easy to bring inside and use between Zoom classes, too!


    Meadow ring toss game

    Plan Toys meadow ring toss game

    Besides offering a fantastic opportunity to hone focus, coordination, determination and taking turns, lawn games are just plain fun. Set them up close together for the littles and spread them out when Mom and Dad get in on the action. With their low profile and rope rings, they're great for indoors as well.


    We independently select and share the products we love—and may receive a commission if you choose to buy. You've got this.


    Sorry, you can’t meet our baby yet

    Thank you for understanding. ❤️

    In just over three weeks, we will become parents. From then on, our hearts will live outside of our bodies. We will finally understand what everyone tells you about bringing a child into the world.

    Lately, the range of emotions and hormones has left me feeling nothing short of my new favorite mom word, "hormotional." I'm sure that's normal though, and something most people start to feel as everything suddenly becomes real.

    Our bags are mostly packed, diaper bag ready, and birth plan in place. Now it's essentially a waiting game. We're finishing up our online childbirth classes which I must say are quite informational and sometimes entertaining. But in between the waiting and the classes, we've had to think about how we're going to handle life after baby's birth.


    I don't mean thinking and planning about the lack of sleep, feeding schedule, or just the overall changes a new baby is going to bring. I'm talking about how we're going to handle excited family members and friends who've waited just as long as we have to meet our child. That sentence sounds so bizarre, right? How we're going to handle family and friends? That sentence shouldn't even have to exist.

    Keep reading Show less

    100 unusual + surprising baby name ideas

    From Adelia to Ziggy.

    Our list of 100 baby names that should be on everyone's list this year includes more choices than in the past of names that are obscure and surprising. That's because there are so many more unusual baby names coming into widespread use and baby namers have become a lot more adventurous.

    Expectant parents do not need to be told to move beyond Jennifer and Jason. Their thinking about names has evolved to the point that the most useful thing we can do is offer a large menu of intriguing choices.

    Here are our picks for the 100 best surprising + unusual baby names now.

    Keep reading Show less
    Learn + Play