Tot's Distress Isn't About Missing Dad


How can you effectively and lovingly manage your child's separation anxiety?

Q. My daughter will be 3 years old soon. Her father was primary caretaker until she was around 20 months, then he left and she hasn't seen him since. I expected her to be clingy in the beginning; however, it is still continuing. She cries and screams when I drop her off anywhere—at the sitter's, even my sister's house, and she clings to me like I'm going to disappear. Any suggestions?

You may be over-complicating the issue by thinking that your daughter's anxiety over separation is due to her father's sudden disappearance from her life. That's actually unlikely. It's more likely that she has no memory of him at all (but might recognize him if he suddenly appeared). As long as you think this is a psychological problem, it's going to be difficult for you to act in a calm and authoritative manner.

The general rule is that when a child is having problems separating, the more the parent talks to the child about an upcoming separation, reassures the child that mommy's coming back, and hangs around trying to calm the child down, the worse the problem becomes. Unwittingly, the parent conveys anxiety to the child, thus making the child that much more anxious.

Don't give these situations any buildup. Just take her to the designated caretaker, kiss her and walk away. Trust the caretaker to handle the situation from that point. (Let the caretaker know what the "new program" is going to be before you begin.)

Given calm resolve on your part, your daughter will probably stop crying within a few minutes of your leaving and the problem should be a thing of the past in a few weeks.

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