Q&A: 3 Year Old Has Apparent Separation Anxiety

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blockquote_bgI am seeking advice concerning the behavior of my son. He will be three years in a few months. He has been exhibiting a few red flag behaviors. He has not attended day care, and is not around other children on a regular basis. If he is in a setting with other children, he is very apprehensive at first, but will usually warm up and play. From the ages of approximately 8 months up to 2 years, he had horrible bouts of separation anxiety (on and off) as a result, I was terrified at the thought of putting him into a daycare setting. I work part time and go to school, and I depend on his father’s mom to babysit. She has been a constant in his life. Recently, she took a trip to visit her other grandson, and was gone for a week. Upon her return, my son has been extremely clingy to me, and screams when she comes in. It has also been difficult for me to leave for work or school. While she says he does not cry for long after I leave, the anxiety seems to be a red flag, in my opinion.

While my son’s grandmother was gone (as aforementioned), his father babysat him a few times. The first couple times that I left him with his father, he was fine. Then, it seemed to go downhill. The next few times I had to leave, my son screamed and cried and became horribly anxious. To the best of my knowledge, nothing negative happened during this time. On the topic of his father, we are in the process of renewing our relationship and family. He was not a constant during the first two years of his son’s life, and did not bond or interact properly. My son is displaying very unusual behaviors when it comes to his him. When he hears him or sees him, my son will say something along the lines of “No want daddy!”, then proceed with a tantrum and/or to hit at, pinch, etc. his father. We have tried ignoring these behaviors, as well as telling him that it is rude and unacceptable. This has escalated since his father recently babysat him.

You sound like you have very good ideas as to what is causing your son’s anxiety. It sounds like he has always had a temperament where separation caused him perhaps greater anxiety than some children his age, however, since his primary babysitter (which was grandma) said even though he cried he calmed himself after a few minutes then all that was developmentally appropriate. All kids go through separation, some more intensely than others and even though it subsides for a while, it does come back during transitions such as moving, a new caregiver, preschool, kindergarten. It would also be appropriate for him to have some anxiety around new children, but as you said he typically will warm up after a few minutes and play, which again is fine for his age. His grandmother’s departure for a week as his primary caretaker while you were at work, coupled with being babysat by his Dad who is basically a “new” person to him would certainly be enough of a life transition for him to provoke an anxiety reaction. Since he is not yet 3 and does not have the language or cognitive skills to understand or express his feelings you are seeing his anxiety being acted out in crying or hitting/pinching as a way of telling you perhaps “I am confused”, “I don’t want Mommy to leave for work”, “I am not used to this new Daddy”, and “I am afraid grandma may leave again and not come back”. But, all that is still “normal” for a two year old.

For your son to build a healthy relationship with his Dad and with other people in his world, he needs to work through his separation anxiety and learn to calm himself with your family’s help and support, so quitting your job would not be in yours or his best interest. If you are certain your son is safe with his Dad and nothing negative has happened there, and Dad is willing to put up with some crying and aggression and can show understanding and remain patient without becoming angry, then your best bet would be to continue this routine for your son. Any major routine change for a toddler does as you stated “rock their world”.

Often right after this change, behaviors will escalate and become worse before they become better. Because separation is sometimes as hard or harder on the parent than the child, the best thing you can do is to remain positive, not let your son see that you are upset leaving him and do not prolong goodbyes when he is crying. If he senses you are having trouble leaving him, it can increase his anxiety. Always give him advance warnings of routines such as “You are going to Daddy’s house today while Mommy is at work, Mommy will be back to pick you up after work”. Never sneak out on him thinking this will help or keep him from crying, this is the worst thing you can do to provoke his anxiety since now he doesn’t know where you went or if you’re coming back…always (tears or tantrum) matter of factly tell him “Mommy is going to work. Mommy will be back”. When you return make a big production about your return stating “See Mommy is back from work, Mommy always come back”. Sometimes you will see tears of relief upon your return, but that doesn’t mean that anything bad happened to him while you were gone.

Make him a photo book with pictures of you and grandma in it….even a picture of you at work so Dad can show him “Mommy is at work”. You can use a digital camera to make a photo book of his day to help him learn to sequence the days events- a photo of him waking up, a photo of him eating breakfast, a photo of him playing, a photo of him with Dad, a photo of him eating lunch, bath, bed, etc. You can also pick an object of yours as a transitional object, like a tee shirt or piece of jewelry and when you leave, tell him “you keep this for Mommy while she is at work and then I will get it when I come to pick you up”. You can also put your photo in a recordable frame and record your voice saying “I love you, I will be back to get you after work” etc so he can hit the message and hear your voice whenever he feels anxious. Also read age appropriate books to him about separation to him, Amazon has several titles.

Try to think of something special that he just gets to do when he’s with Dad and with no one else, whether it’s a certain game, toy, special dvd or going to a park, etc. to help foster a positive relationship.

This is a link about separation that also talks about what is normal and not normal.

Even though your son’s current behavior is difficult and frustrating right now, I still think it is developmentally within normal limits and would definitely give him more time to adjust, be patient, firm and consistent and definitely don’t quit your job. If you see no changes in his anxiety level after 3 months of consistency or you see unusual red flags or new behaviors emerge you could always consult a child psychologist for advice.