How we Helped our Toddler Overcome his Separation Anxiety

If you know me and you know my son, you know he’s typically a very happy and very silly two and a half year old boy. However, if you know me but don’t know my son or don’t know him well then you know that he can be very shy and doesn’t like separating from his parents.

Visits with “strangers” usually looked like Zachary climbing down my shirt and refusing to leave my arms and lap. You also know that when you say hello to him and are standing too close to him he will look at you like this…


Preschool is approaching and I have grown more and more concerned with Zachary’s separation anxiety. This issue had been going on since he was about 8 months old and when he turned 2 it did not seem like he was growing out of it.

Let me paint a picture for you as to what this anxiety looked like.

At Christmas time we had professional photos taken. We were able to get a beautiful family photo (minus the fact that Zachary doesn’t smile for pictures). The photographer wanted pictures of just my son, and I couldn’t even step five feet away from him to bribe him into smiling without him having a complete meltdown. We had to go back multiple times that day to try and get a few successful pictures and we also took several shoots of our own. The ones we took on our own ended up being much more successful (almost). Click here to read about how we took our own Christmas photos this year.

In the months and days following this shoot his anxiety seemed to worsen. Was it because of the shoot? Probably not, but it was an odd coincidence. At this point he wouldn’t leave my side… Ever. Which was then making it hard for this mama to go anywhere without him. Including the bathroom. When I did go places in my house without him he would scream and cry until I got back and was able to pick him up. How could I leave my poor boy screaming so I could quickly wash my hands or use the bathroom?

I was so horrified by his reaction of me leaving for less than 30 seconds that I couldn’t imagine leaving him for a half day at school!

Because Zachary has hearing loss, we receive Early Intervention to make sure he is on track developmentally. They gave us some suggestions on how to help him separate from us that really worked! But it took some time before we got there. Now, I would like to be able to share these techniques we learned with other parents who are going through similar things with their toddlers. I’d also like to share things that I think did not help.

What didn’t help:

  1. “Disappearing” I think quietly sneaking out of the room for him to later discover we were gone was not helpful, and I think it possibly made things worse.
  2. Leaving abruptly. Getting up without any notice or explaining where we were going was scary! He didn’t know if we were coming back.
  3. Staying home. We don’t get out very much and I think that this was also harmful to him and his separation anxiety. He wasn’t use to being outside of the house and wouldn’t even walk through a parking lot without being carried the whole way.
  4. Forcing him to do things he disliked. We were going to a play group for a little while and I think he really disliked that. It was a new place with new people. As silly as it sounds forcing him to go each week and forcing him to play with other children only made him mad and made him scared to go to this strange place.

What helped:

  1. Stories. We created a physical story of mommy leaving the house and coming home. We took pictures of things in our house that would help him to understand mommy leaving and coming home. For example, we took pictures of the front door and my car to narrate that mommy was going out the door and getting in her car.
  2. Time increment warnings. This was the biggest help to us. For example we would say, “Zachary in two minutes mommy and daddy are going to go bye bye but we will see you_____” . Then we would let him know at a minute the same thing. When it was time to go, we would give him a hug and a kiss. He might cry but we continued to practice this.
  3. Give lots and lots of hugs and kisses! Giving hugs and kisses helped him to calm down. He now knows when he is sad he can ask for a hug and a kiss and he instantly stops crying! This helped with the warnings as well so when he would cry at the last warning, a hug and a kiss would make things a little better.
  4. More family outings with the opportunity for movement. Going to places where he can walk around but know we are close by has been helpful. He is now able to walk through a parking lot with us or in the store without freaking out when someone gets too close to him.
  5. Practice practice practice! Practicing the warnings and telling him “we will be right back, don’t worry” with lots of hugs and kisses was helpful. Telling him “mommy is getting a tissue and will be right back” or “in 2 minutes mommy is going to go into the kitchen to cook dinner and she will be back soon” helped to ease his mind.

Some of the things we say most often and that worked the best for us are:

  • We’ll be back soon
  • In ___ minutes we will be leaving
  • I’ll be back soon, don’t worry
  • One more time then we will be leaving soon
  • This is the last time and then we will be leaving

With these techniques, our son is now able to separate much better from us and I’m less worried about him going to preschool. While he has not gone to school yet, I’m sure that these strategies will help him. We will continue to practice them as long as needed. That way he knows mommy and daddy will always come back!

If you have any questions on some of the things we tried, be sure to leave a comment and I will respond as soon as I can! I hope you enjoyed reading this post and getting some insight on what it’s like to raise a toddler with separation anxiety.

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