Dealing with separation anxiety in toddlers

I travel overseas a lot with work. It is very difficult with two toddlers at home. I don’t like leaving them, they don’t like me leaving them and my wife doesn’t like being left.

I have written a whole blog on the contradictory emotions that leaving the family for work reasons provokes in me (I’m travelling abroad for work without my children – is it OK for me to be feeling this happy?) so I won’t go into that here.

Instead this blog deals with a technique that I have developed to make the separation more bearable, particularly for our 3yo daughter who is more conscious, vocal and assertive with her displeasure at being left behind.

Mrs Secret Father and I have, rightly or wrongly, always been really open and honest with our kids about what we are doing. We rarely get nights out together these days, but when we do go out we explain where we are going, how long for and when we will be back.

Initially my daughter would scream and refuse to go to bed on such nights, but after three or four such occasions, became more accepting that Mummy and Daddy might want to go out for a few hours.

The first time I went away for a sustained period with work (about 10 days) I explained to my daughter where I was going and how long I was going away for. This seemed to work initially and I was able to leave the house with my suitcase, relatively unscathed.

However with her only frame of reference being a few previous separations of a couple of hours, it wasn’t long before the questions came thick and fast for Mrs Secret Father to deal with and then eventually this resulted in a mega meltdown caused by frustration, overwhelming emotion and sadness that Daddy could so easily desert her.

We noticed that my being away also set her back in developmental milestones too – temporarily resetting progress that had been made on walking unaided, and more recently reverting to wetting herself when she had succeeded at potty training many months previously.

So a few weeks ago, before a trip to the United States, I decided this time to sit down with my daughter and create a chart to help communicate what was happening. I figured that “time” and “separation” are such abstract concepts to children that it might be easier to deal with if I made them tangible and visible.

So I sat down with her on the morning of my departure and got her to choose the colours we were going to use. I marked out the days I was going to be away and in each day we drew what was going to happen and who she was going to be with. She even helped with a few squiggles of her own.

I then gave her a sheet of stickers and told her to sit down with mummy at the end of each day and put a sticker on the chart to indicate that day was over. The idea was that mummy and her could sit and discuss the day, look forward to (and discuss) the next day, and see it all within the framework of me being away.

The first time we tried it was actually when Mrs Secret Father was away with work for a week and it worked a treat. It made the whole thing more predictable for my daughter gave her a notion of time passing and helped her visualise when her mummy would be home. It also helped to reaffirm routine, a key concept and safety blanket for toddlers.

And it also helped this time on my recent trip to the United States. The sight of me standing at the front door with my suitcase, a symbol and catalyst for so many meltdowns in the past, was no longer a threatening sight. Although my daughter asked many times where I was during the trip, Mrs Secret Father was able to sit her down in front of the chart and talk her through the situation.

Mrs Secret Father sent me a picture of the chart from the first night I was away. If you look closely at the sticker my daughter chose for the first Monday, you will see it is a spaceman. Apparently my daughter chose this to represent me flying to America. I have always fancied being a spaceman, but unfortunately I didn’t get THAT kind of an upgrade on the flight home.

this colourful chart really helped my 3yo daughter deal with separation

this colourful chart really helped my 3yo daughter deal with separation

I would be really pleased to hear about your techniques and advice for dealing with separation anxiety in toddlers.

Leave a comment on this post, tweet me @Secret_Father or email me;


19 thoughts on “Dealing with separation anxiety in toddlers

  1. Interesting read man, I can’t imagine how it would feel to be gone from your wife and kids for so long, I don’t know if I could do it!

    • Yeah I HATE it (but equally love it). Nice because I can actually sleep and get a break, get some perspective and come back a better dad. Dreadful because I miss the little buggers the moment I leave the house…..

      Thanks for reading and commenting

  2. Good read – not there yet so for now collecting ideas from others….
    Skype works wonders with Peanut’s grandparents although they are the ones suffering from separation anxiety – will make them a chart 🙂

  3. Similar but different: my parents live in the Netherlands and my toddler was getting impatient about seeing them again. When he asked me if we could visit Opa and Oma, I said: “We will see them in…” and started calculating in my head how many days. While I was doing this, my toddler hopefully looked up at the clock.

    That was when I realised that I had to make him a calendar! We sat down and made one together. He just loves numbers, so we spent a happy fifteen minutes using stencils to write numbers 1 to 28 in a grid. Since then he has put a sticker on a number every day, counting down to when we are going on the plane. Today we did sticker number 2 – almost there! It has really helped him get a handle on what “tomorrow” means. After a while he cottoned on and at bedtime he said: “Tomorrow, number nine! And then eight, and then seven, and then six, and then five, and then four, and then three, and then two, and then one, and then: Opa Oma! Yay!”

    • Ha ha that is lovely. The concept of tomorrow is such a complex one. This is another lovely example of how to make that concept more tangible. Thanks for your comment.

  4. A great idea. Anything that smooths the absence is always a good thing.

    I also lean on modern technology to help bridge the gap with my kids whenever I’m away – as iPhone users, I can Facetime (or Apple-Skype as I tend to think of it) with my wife’s phone, which allows me to talk to the kids before they go to bed, discuss their day and wave them goodbye, It’s rarely for more than 5 minutes, but it’s the connection that matters and being able to do it by video rather than just audio is something they really seem to appreciate.

    • A great idea and I try to do that IF I am in a country with a decent Internet connection (like the US for example). Unfortunately a lot of my travel takes me to places with poor IT infrastructure and its not do easy then. But you are right it’s a lovely thing to do. And good for teaching the kids the practical value and application of IT.

      Thanks for reading and commenting

  5. I really enjoyed this post and how you found a solution that worked for your child. I think that’s key, identifying a way to help them understand that fits in with their age and personality, especially with something tricky like separation anxiety. We haven’t really faced long absences like in your case, but having the odd night out has been tricky in the past. We always find a lot of forewarning, talking through what’s going to happen before, during and after (repeatedly) in the lead-up always seems to help our son deal with it. We also always try to find fun positve things about us being out for a bit to focus his mind on (he’ll get extra stories, do a fun game/activity or stay up a bit later with a babysitter, that kind of thing) and as he has got older, that’s worked quite well :-).

    • That’s great feedback and you are right, it is all about their little personalities. My son for example is so laid back he barely notices I have gone!

      Thanks for reading and commenting

  6. Haven’t gotten there yet… mine is 16 months (going on 5) and although my husband has done a few trips away with work there always 4/5 days max and she doesn’t seem to be that affected… think it would be different if it was me going away! Like the idea of being honest with them and the charts, we’ll prob do something similar 😉 I just drink gin til he comes home and get Charlie and Lola on repeat… :/

    • Ha! Is there any toddler problem that cannot be solved by TV, Calpol and Gin?! I think not. Chuck in a sticker chart or two and the armoury is complete. They don’t tell us this stuff at NCT!

  7. I love how you’ve dealt with this: How you’ve kept honest, open, respectful of the fact that it’s difficult for the little one but conscious of strategies you can put in place to minimise the distress and to make it easier. Great work! 🙂 x

  8. just ended here after looking around for the topic…my husband is a very frequent traveller so we are already dealing with these separations since 3 years (the oldest daughter is 3 and they younger is 1,5)..when the elder was very small it helped to give her a small plane and tell her that daddy was inside there and whenever he is leaving she can keep the plane with her, we play a lot with it especially when she learnt the concept of tomorrow we were making the plane landing soon…

    • Thanks for sharing that – yes that sounds like a great idea. What you have done is to give your child something tangible to focus on. And it is fascinating that you refer to the concept of tomorrow. I remember “tomorrow” only making sense to me a day before my fourth birthday. Up until that point it was an abstract concept. I am going to adopt your airplane idea with my youngest. Thanks for sharing

  9. My situation is a little different and I stumbled on this as I was trying to find answers of how to deal with my 19-month-old daughter. My hubby just left to work in the UK (yesterday) and the plan is for my daughter and I to join him once our visas have been sorted out. As you know this is a lengthy process and can take a few months which is going to become unbearable! Last night was our first night without him and this morning my daughter ran into the kitchen as I switched the kettle on and called out for “daddy” after which I tried to explain to her that he is still gone and not coming back soon…it breaks my heart! What can I do to help her understand? She is very close to her dad he was always there for her so it is a little bit worse in our case I think…at least that’s how it feels. Not sure if a chart will make sense to her at all. She loves Barney the dinosaur so perhaps I can try to create something with this character that will help her relate to the situation?

    • While I am also very close to my daughter and have also always been there for her, the big difference here is the amount of time your hubby will be away for. I feel for you in this tough situation. The chart worked for my daughter because it provided something tangible that my wife could interact with my daughter with, in the otherwise abstract concept of time.

      But given the extensive period of time your hubby is away for, it may not be the best solution for you. Can you schedule regular skype calls to keep the contact going? Just a thought. Good luck with your idea. If it works share it, you may well be helping other mums and dads through a similar situation. Xx

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