My husband and I recently had our second baby (Jonah, now 4 months) and I am just now starting to re-enter the adult world after having been on maternity leave, hallelujah! Something we experienced as a part of our transition to a family of four was our 2 ½ year old, Mercy, started having some significant separation anxiety. This meant some major meltdowns every time I left. The flare up wasn't totally unexpected (I knew it was a very common of toddlers going through a major transition). But to have it happen to my own kid brought a whole new perspective of how my own emotional process plays into it, and, with a few simple activities, how much of an effect I am able to have on her experience. When it first started happening, I found my own anxiety getting really triggered, to the point where I often doubted my decisions and whether it was okay to leave her with someone else. It took me a little while but I ultimately had to trust that taking care of myself was important and all of those things I’d helped other parents do with their kids would work with Mercy. Here are some things I found super helpful for both of us:
If you are anxious, they will be too.
The vibes you're putting off as you leave your kids are soaked up like a sponge. If I was worrying about leaving Mercy, our goodbye and her time with whoever I left her with went significantly worse than if I (at least on the outside) stayed positive and confident. Our anxiety gives our kids the queue that they have something to worry about, which ultimately they don’t. Staying super upbeat and energetic told Mercy that it was okay that I was leaving and that she didn’t need to worry about me returning. Then, I would ask the caretaker for text updates which helped me to calm things down on my end.
Make it a story.
Anytime I was going to leave Mercy with someone new for the first time, we’d sit down and storyboard it (thanks Daniel Tiger!), sometimes days in advance. This gave her a simple narrative and images on what to expect (who she was staying with, what she would do while I was gone, when I would be returning, etc.). Helping her set expectations gave her a chance to get excited about the new experience rather than fear it and took away the element of surprise which can often be anxiety provoking for kiddos.
Caring for “missing” feelings.
It is very normal to miss someone we love when they’re gone. Mercy would often say she missed me and I never wanted her to feel shame about that. Instead, I always responded with something reassuring like “sweetie, it’s okay to miss me. I miss you too when I’m gone!!”. Then we would talk about things she could do to help herself feel better. We came up with a small list of things (hug her bunny, sing a song [“Grown Ups Come Back” - thanks again DT!], read a book, look at a picture of us, etc.). You can get creative here! I also told her that when I’m away and I miss her, I always think of all of the fun things we do together and how I’m gonna give her a big hug when I get back and that makes ME feel better.
Friends in the game.
You may have noticed Daniel making his name known already. I found that exposing Mercy to characters (friends) she can have who share her feelings really validates her experience and lowers her anxiety. We will often reference them when the feelings come up and that tends to help a lot. Here is a list of buddies Mercy has:
Shows on Netflix, HBO or Amazon Prime that teach emotional awareness:
I am super happy to report that with effort and lots and lots of little toddler talk, Mercy is now able to transition seamlessly with our nanny (NO MORE MELTDOWNS!!) and is VERY excited to start preschool in a few weeks (I’m sure that will require another blog post, lol). So keep at it, even if it’s not perfect the first couple times! Hope this was helpful. Please let me know what is working for you or if you have any questions!!