3 Ways To Manage Toddler Separation Anxiety

3 Ways To Manage Toddler Separation Anxiety

My oldest son, Bruce, has had the misfortune of suffering from separation anxiety and subsequent panic attacks. Fortunately they’re quite rare now, but an episode last week reminded us that we can’t lose vigilance. I’m not talking about temper tantrums, though he occasionally throws those too. It is important to note the difference. They both exhibit symptoms of increased heart rate and blood pressure like even less coherent speech, flushing, sweating and, trembling.

Temper tantrums are normally triggered by anger, like when you tell them no, mention sleep, or offer food that didn’t come out of a colorful box. Although they sometimes seem more like a conspiracy to prevent you from ever arriving on time or maintaining your dignity in public. This is the crying, screaming, thrashing fit that makes you hate the existence of toy aisles in stores. You know the one, where passing parents point and mutter things about abstinence and birth control to their teenagers.

Panic attacks are different, they make your heart break more than your blood boil. They’re triggered by fear and will set off the fight, flight or freeze response and can cause hyperventilating. In Bruce’s case, they are brought on by the fear that his daddy is going to disappear, separation anxiety. This is an easy correlation since our first night together was when he was 14 months old. By the time the custody battle was over when he was 15 months old, he’d only been allowed to spend less than 3.5% of his life with me.

The first several months of the new custody plan (alternating weeks) were really rough. If he knew I was in the building he would lose his mind unless he was stuck on like we’d been attacked by the Kragle. It was challenging but caused me to develop some impressive one-handed cooking, cleaning, eating and hygiene techniques.

I still have flashbacks about bed time during that period. His night time wakings would pierce our sleep like a Banshee’s cries that led to hyperventilating. When I came to tuck him back in his hysteria would finally calm through a series of stuttering cackles of relief. And those were the good nights.

Fortunately, those times are pretty far behind us. He can play alone in the toy room, hang out with Callee while I walk dog, bed time is nice bonding time, and he usually sleeps through the night. We still have the occasional episode, but together we learned how to build his confidence and trust to minimize his anxiety. Here’s what we learned:

  1. Have a routine. If your child has ever made you consider calling an adoption agency, or exorcist; they were probably at least one of: hungry, lonely, or tired. A routine is the easiest way to make sure those tiny terrorists get enough sleep, food and quality time. The repetition provides comfort through predictability. Admittedly, our regular work schedule is a big key to making this possible.
  2. Explain schedule variations. Sick days, snowmegaddon, family outings, and visitors share a common bond. They don’t fit nicely into our routines. They mess up bed time, ignore nap time and don’t even care about meal times. That’s all okay. Just develop a plan to get a fair amount of food and sleep into that little body and explain to them how things will be different today (be aware that this can be equivalent to providing the enemy with your plans and sets you up for sabotage).
  3. Quality bonding time. This must be part of your routine. Separation anxiety is rooted in the fear that this (quality time with you) is going to disappear, forever. Without quality bonding time, you’re little one is going to wrestle with separation anxiety.

By keeping a pretty regular routine, making sure he knows what to expect, and making sure we have plenty of quality bonding time, we’ve been able to manage Bruce’s separation anxiety. It’s not perfect, but it’s a long way from where we were just months ago.