I Miss You, And That’s OK (Toddlers And Separation)

In a child’s perfect world, the people he’s closest to would be available 24/7. But separations are a necessary and inevitable part of life. Whether it’s for work, exercise, chores, errands, time to reconnect with a spouse or friends, or just to save one’s sanity, parents (and other beloved caregivers) need to leave. The person who remains with the infant, toddler or preschooler is then left to handle what is often an unhappy situation.

Infant specialist Magda Gerber encouraged parents and caregivers to embrace this time together with honesty. Most of us have the strong temptation to distract a crying child with games, songs, or toys, to discount her feelings by telling her it’s okay and she shouldn’t cry. But to ensure healthy emotional development, a child’s feelings of fear and loss during separation need to be expressed and heard, not erased or invalidated.

Accepting this worthy challenge to allow babies their feelings has the added benefit of presenting  a wonderful opportunity for intimacy and bonding. When a child is supported to share his pain, his trust deepens.

I was reminded of this subject when a family in Mexico I correspond with asked how to help their 26 month old deal with a vacationing nanny…

Janet,

Thanks for your time.

My wife and I are very worried. Mateo’s nanny will not be at home for 6 weeks, and we do not know how to help him to manage the separation.

Today was his first day without the old nanny, and he has been very irritated. We tried to make the change less strong for him. We had our nanny stay for a week with the new nanny so that he could familiarize. Also we prepared him a few days before his nanny would go.

Could you help us?!

 Regards, 
Mario and Adriana

Hi Mario and Adriana,

Do you know this stanza from the poem by Lord Tennyson? (Don’t know if it translates!)

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

I understand how hard it is to see your boy uncomfortable, but loving someone means missing that person when she’s gone, whether it’s temporary or forever. You’ve done everything right. Now, rather than try to make the change “less strong for him”, encourage him to express his feelings of loss completely. He’s attached to his nanny and that is a wonderful thing. All you can really do is support and acknowledge his feelings. Ask the new caregiver to do that, too. “You must miss Nanny so much. She’s gone for a while, but she’ll be back.” “You were always comfortable with Nanny because she knew you so well. It’s hard to get used to someone new.”

Keep talking about it. Listen to his discomfort and complaints. Allow him to cry. Encourage it. Hold him in your arms and let him feel all his feelings. It may be rough for you, but it will be very good for him, because he will then be able to move on and accept the new situation.

Best regards,
Janet

I share much more on this subject in Good Grief – When Babies Need To Cry and in my compilation: Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting

35 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Amen, I say, Amen! All feelings are okay. We have to help children learn how to embrace them, FEEL them and know they are safe to do it in our presence. Think of all the adults in our world who continue to try to distract themselves from uncomfortable and undesireable feelings by plying themselves with alcohol and drugs. We do our babies…and our society…well when we allow a full expression of feelings…and get comfortable enough to provide a “container” (within the safety our arms) for those BIG and sometimes scary feelings!

    Thanks, Janet, for a great post!

    Wendy @Kidlutions

  2. Janet, you know how difficult it is for me to read this. With my husband and my children’s daddy away for so very long, we are sad, we grieve, we are happy, we rejoice, we cry, and sometimes there is nothing any of us can do but hold each other to make the heart ache any easier.

    1. Kate, I didn’t know you were dealing with your husband’s absence. I’m so sorry to hear that. But thankful for your beautiful comment. I send you love! <3

  3. I could not agree more. Dealing with separation, for many toddlers, is the most challenging job they have. At school, I find it helps to agree with them aloud (e.g., “I wish your mommy was here too.”) I think it validates the feeling when others share it and it helps to not feel alone in your strong emotions. I also like to provide a concrete way for the child to know when she’ll be back. Sometimes, especially early in the school year, that means running through the entire day’s schedule, almost like a mantra (e.g., “We will play, then we’ll clean up, then we’ll eat snack, then we’ll go outside, then we sing songs, then mommy comes back.”) Once the child knows the schedule it’s usually enough to just say, “Mommy comes back when we sing Boom Boom.” In our Pre-3 class, half the kids turn to look at the door as soon as we’re done singing our end-of-the-day song, and in walks mommy. Learning to trust the world when mommy is away is a very important thing.

    1. Tom, thank you for sharing these brilliant suggestions. “I wish your mommy was here too” gives the child the comfort of knowing his feelings are ‘just right’, perfectly appropriate. And telling the child exactly what will happen, “We will play, then we’ll clean up, then we’ll eat snack, then we’ll go outside, then we sing songs, then mommy comes back” fulfills his need to predict situations that might be upsetting or overwhelming. I also love “Learning to trust the world when mommy is away is a very important thing.” So true, because mommy and daddy are the world to the infant and toddler.

      1. In my initial reading of Tom’s comment, “I wish your mommy was here” I was struck by the false sound of it, perhaps from my own experiences with teachers and childcare providers. I often get the sense that they would prefer that mommy wasn’t around (if, at the least, to get their job done without having to feel “watched” or evaluated – which is perfectly understandable). Naturally, since I wasn’t there, I could be reading it incorrectly and/or attributing a negative perspective of childcare workers in general based on my limitations. Do you really wish the mommy was there? Maybe you do, (and the child understands this) in which case, no problem.

        But, if you didn’t really care or wish that the mommy was there what would likely be the closer truth? “I wish that you and your mommy could both have what you wanted” might work, if that’s really how you feel. My point is that it’s so imperative to really know your feelings and communicate precisely.

        This reminds me of an incident from my own childhood when I questioned my mother about staying home with me or going to work, and she said “I don’t have a choice.” Even as a child I remember thinking, that’s not true. Kids cut right through the bs better than any of us because they haven’t been around it as long as we have.

        An alternative to “I don’t have a choice” would be “I choose to work today, right now, instead of being with you so that, together, we can accomplish the goal of being able to pay for things we want to enjoy.” It sounds like a complex response, but it sure would have helped me to see her view more clearly, even if it may appear to “hurt my feelings” because she “chose” something over me. It would have reassured me that she had a purpose in everything she did, and didn’t do things arbitrarily and without regard or because she was coerced. It also would have been a statement that she was willing to take the time to explain something. Also to explain it with respect – that it *was* possible that I could understand.

        Instead, I was left thinking not only that she didn’t want to spend time with me, but how weak she was because “someone” or something else “made” her go to work, and that she was a victim of her circumstances. How scary it was to realize that day that I was being raised by someone who could not stand up for herself, answer a child in a straightforward way, and therefore prove that she was secure emotionally. I was less than 8 years old, but I instinctively understood all of this in the few seconds it happened. Parents really need to understand that children are amazingly perceptive until they’re trained not to be.

  4. Janet…this is for Kate…

    Kate,

    Although I do not know why your husband and your chidren’s daddy is away…I can only say this…my dad was in the military and I remember him having to be away for LONG stretches at a time, on more than one occasion (once for war). Please know that these sorts of absences (although heartbreaking) can serve to help your family grow closer, appreciate each other more and learn to value your relationships to a greater degree. Keep your hubby and your children’s daddy “present” in your family through discussions, pictures and stories. I can imagine that you already do this! Hugs!

    ~Wendy

  5. This is a beautiful post. I am just returning home from a 10 day hospital stay (unexpected complications with my 2nd pregnancy) and am dealing with my daughter’s responses to this very unexpected and very sudden separation. (She did visit me almost every day in the hospital, and had continuity with caregivers at home, but it wasn’t me.)

    I’ve actually been amazed by her ability to articulate her fears and ask for comfort. Playing “doctor,” asking me to tell stories about “mommy/daddy/kitty goes to the hospital,” talking about wanting me to stay…. Although it is certainly a tough period for all of us, I feel like the principles I’ve been following all along are *working*. It is wonderful that she’s able to TELL us about her fears and anxieties (albeit in a 31-month-old way) rather than only acting up (although she does that sometimes too, and that’ okay).

  6. avatar Tina Herrera says:

    I attend a toddler group with my daughter at a progressive preschool once a week (soon to be twice a week) and some helpful tips they’ve given me are to NEVER sneak away to avoid the possibility of a meltdown when you leave. They need to see you leave and be reminded that “mommy always comes back.” Another great thing they do with older kids when they’re going through separation at pre-school is that they help kids write a letter (or draw a picture) to let their mom (or dad) know how much they missed them. The kids almost always feel much better after that.

    1. Great suggestions about the note or picture, Tina. And, yes, sneaking away is tempting, but just about the worst thing we can do. How can the child ever settle into playing or enjoying a situation when loved ones might disappear. In a relationship, trust is everything.

  7. Great post. Separation can be very difficult for toddlers and parents are often tempted to ‘sneak out’ in order to avoid seeing the tears and distress.

    I always insist that parents are honest about leaving, say goodbye to their children and tell them when they will be back. I then acknowledge the child’s feelings and support him / her through any distress about the parent leaving. Doing it honestly like this builds trust between child and parent, (mummy always comes back), and also builds a trusting relationship with the caregiver showing the child that the caregiver accepts his/her feelings and will support and care for him/her when needed.

    Sneaking out might be ‘easier’ for the parent in the short term, but handling separations in an honest and supportive way is best for everyone involved.

  8. Again, a wonderful article Janet. As a Preschool teacher it was always so easy for me to deal with these situations. “Separation” was one of my specialities. By drawing the picture, always reminding the child that mommy or daddy (or the main caregiver) always comes back. Now, I would like an article about how I can deal with separation. I mean, my son is only 14 weeks old, but I can not imagine leaving him with someone else, while I work with older children. How do I deal with my separation anxiety?? hehehhe.

    1. Great question, Nadia! I think you deal with it by reminding yourself how healthy and enriching it is for your boy to make secondary attachments. 🙂

  9. I was actually let go from my last position as a nanny because I left for a couple of weeks to help care for my grandfather who was diagnosed with cancer. My boss told me it had been too hard on the children for me to be gone, and that her son displayed negative behavior. She feared I would leave again later in the year if my grandfather died, and said she could not put her son through that upset again. I wish I had had this article to show to her!

    1. avatar Beth Lavington says:

      Wow, that’s dreadful, as the nanny you are the second most important person in a child’s life – after the parents, who should at all times be the one’s who the child turns too for love and support – how sad that they negated their responsibilities and put them onto you.

  10. Thank you for articulating this – as a teacher, I often see tears when a caregiver needs to leave, and sometimes I feel like the bad guy, saying that its okay and they can leave. Parents are distressed that their child is crying, and often they wait a few minutes and then return when they hear their child is still upset. Parents also worry that their child’s crying will disrupt the class, but crying is a natural part of learning to express one’s emotions, and I think the high point of exploring emotions is in the toddler/early preschool years.

    To expand on what Tom was saying, I think that validating that Mom is gone and running through those schedules and routines is an important part of comforting a child. I worked in a setting once where I was told by another teacher not to mention a child’s grandmother because she recently passed away. My instinct is opposite – children do not often get the opportunity to articulate their feelings and questions about loss, and it seems silly to distract and avoid.

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

  11. Hi Janet,
    Good question, and good response! I notice, though, that a separation with a predictable “end” (like the length of a preschool day, or even the Nanny’s six-week vacation) are different than a permanent separation as you were asked to address in the FB post that led me to this post! 🙂
    Permanent goodbyes are a big deal even for adults! And they are a big deal for children, of course. A nanny leaving employment is a normal transition for an adult to make but for a child it can be like a death, and needs some different preparation and support than the kinds of things that help children with routine, predictable separations.

    The book Annie Bananie is a good one about a favorite friend moving away… Your readers may know of others.

    The nanny may be willing or even interested in staying part of the child’s life through writing cards or skyping, in order to say goodbye more slowly… (strangely, though I believe that short, simple goodbyes are best for the daily separation, I am drawn to the idea of a continuing “friendship from a distance” that has its own lifespan (if the nany is willing) rather than an abrupt end to the relationship.

    1. Great advice and perspective… Thank you, Grace!

  12. Such great advice! My husband is military and gone often, not always to war, but sometimes and sometimes for 12+ months at a time. Separations are difficult, reunions are also difficult. I think the children feed off how the adults handle things. If the adults are okay and handle the stress well the children adapt better. If the adults show stress then the children feed off of that. Working out and short scheduled time away from the kids works wonders for my pysche and ability to “BE” with my 5yo and 1yo.

    1. Rachel, I couldn’t agree more: “children feed off how the adults handle things. If the adults are okay and handle the stress well the children adapt better. If the adults show stress then the children feed off of that.” Thank you for bringing up this extremely important point. I’m so glad you take care of yourself and take time away. Thanks for sharing!

  13. avatar Farha syed says:

    Hi, my issue is sleep separation. My 3 year old and I have been co sleeping for early 3 years and he’s always been with me every night, since he was born. I tried getting him to sleep in his own room a couple months ago..but due to some scary security issues I brought him back to my room once again. Recently there has been some changes in our lives, such as I had another baby and my husband went out of town for work. I believe my 3 yr old is still traumatized that in left him for 3 days and went to the hospital. I was discharged last week from the hospital, and I started sleep separation last week. I also felt very bad on our first day of sleep separation. Any how my 3 year old keeps coming back to my room in the middle of the night….please help me

  14. Janet – Thank you for your wonderful guidance. I don’t usually read though the comments section but Im glad I did on this post. Like Kate, my husband is also away for a year. If it weren’t for your blog I probably wouldnt be the strong leader I am to my almost 3 year old. The separation posts relate to our situation and I read them over and over again letting everythign sink in. We talk about daddy all the time, how much we miss him, how we can wait to see him, what color his eyes are, what we cant wait to do with him, how long his beard is going to be when we see him again, etc. Rachel was also spot on with reunions being difficult. When my husband is back for a break hes almost a visitor in the house it feels. Right when we get used to him being home hes gone again. And those last few days of him home I know we both get a little uneasy with the impending departure and our little man feeds off it for sure. The constant talking about him and our feelings is helpful to not just my little one but me too. I remember one time watching him leave i asked my son how he was feeling and he said “i feel sad.” I was obviously sad as well but also happy he was able to express with words how he was feeling. We sat together and were sad together and just let the feelings happen. So from another mama going through a husband away – thank you thank you. I have experienced potty training and limit testing and your gentle leadership approach and guidance has gotten me through rough waves : )

  15. Hi Jane and other mothers!

    I am really thankful for this site for insightful posts!

    My nearly 4 year old has been experiencing separation anxiety issues since a month back. I am not sure what triggered it, he gets really upset when i walk A FEW STEPS away to get to the car to get something, or when I walk to the next room in our home! He insists that he has to be with me/ I have to take him wherever I go. (But when I have to work, he seems ok.) I’m wondering when he can transit to his own room/bed, which seems impossible for now.

    How do you deal with such issues?

    Thank you!

  16. Hi, it has been lovely to read this today, as my 3 year old daughter cries every time I leave her at pre-school. She has been going there twice a week for two years now and has progressed emotionally but even I thought she may have got used to me going by now. I am always consistent with picking her up on time and she knows when that will be, she will be starting school nursery in a new environment in September and I am so worried for her and how she will be able to cope.

  17. I’d like to share a wonderful moment I had with my children that relates to this very topic. I was getting out of the car to run an errand. My husband was taking our toddler and infant for a little ride while I was shopping. My infant started to cry after I kissed both children goodbye. My husband later told me that, after I left the car, my toddler (3) turned to his sister, stroked her hand and said “it’s okay Evie, Mommy always comes back. Always.” I’ve found it so hard to leave him for work and hearing that he has internalized this message was so reassuring. They really do use the tools we give them.

  18. How can you apply this to a child with behavioral issues? My 20 month old’s first instinct is to hurt himself (smash his head, scratch his face, claw at himself) whenever we leave him with someone (or he doesn’t get his way). We’ve tried empathy, but distraction seems to be the only thing that keeps him from really hurting himself. Help!

    1. Distraction is a quick fix, but a slippery slope. He needs a calm response to this… a gentle move of the hand that’s scratching his face, a pillow slipped under his head, etc. Very gentle and casual and calm. It needs to be okay with you for him to scratch and bang a bit. That is the key to him stopping this behavior. Combine this with lots of acknowledgement, “You didn’t like that!” “You didn’t want your mom to go!” Not in a “poor baby” voice, but speaking to his strength.

  19. My husband and I both work out of the house and we both have to travel occasionally for work which we have found to be very difficult on our 2.5 yearold. He acts out more, throws tantrums, and hits more at daycare while the other is away. We also have found that even though we try to do skype or facetime that sometimes it makes it harder on the other parent when the call is over as his feelings become very strong and he cries/lashes out at the parent home or his 1 year-old sister. Any advice/help to dealing with his strong emotions? We try to go through the “I miss daddy too” or “he really wishes he were here” and also tell him reassuringly that daddy/mommy will be home soon, but the concept of time seems hard for him. Someone in our family suggested just saying while the parent is away that the parent is working late/leaving early, but I feel like that is deceitful and I would rather tell him that the parent is away. Thanks for your insight and help!

  20. Hi,
    This is my first time commenting on any website but I really need some advise.

    My 3 year old just started 2 hour of preschool. He was coping well for the first week but the start of his second week, he started crying for mummy in class.

    He doesn’t resist putting on the uniform but he gets really upset when we reach the school door. He would cry at times, but when his teacher class him over, he is okay walking over to her.

    I tried talking positively about school with him, and getting him to play with his classmates before class. I told him it’s okay to cry too. I make my goodbyes quick, and tell him I’d see him later.

    But he still cries for mummy in class. What I learnt from the teachers is that he would be ok playing or listening to his teachers, but after that, he would
    Start to cry for mummy, stops, then starts again later.

    I really want to help him but im not sure what else I can do or who I can talk to about this.

    Any advise or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

  21. Thanks for the article, I was so looking for some advice on toddler separation. I am a consultant mom. I travel for around 7-10 days every month (sometimes more). I have a 3 year old at home. Her grandmom and nanny are there for her when I am away, but I am concerned if this separation is having any long term psychological impact on her. I tell her about the travel and that I’ll be back before I leave, but when I’m away, if we video chat ever, she throws such a tantrum that we have stopped that ritual completely. She asks for me once in a while, at time cries and looks for me all around the house, but overall manages the separation. But I keep wondering what she goes through mentally. Request advice please

    1. Everything we do as parents has an effect, but these separations can be manageable for her if she’s allowed to process them fully, as I recommend in the article. In other words, she needs to be able to grieve the losses and also share feelings with you when you return. These won’t be straightforward or seem obviously connected to your separations, but might flare up in a variety of situations. I’ve share more about this dynamic in my posts and podcasts. Here’s a recent one that applies: https://www.janetlansbury.com/2018/01/helping-child-adjust-two-households-changes-care/

      I hope that helps!

  22. My sister is going to be needing to send her son to daycare when she goes back to work in a few months. I think he is going to have a hard time being away from his mom. It is good to know that we should help him remember that it is only temporary. It might also be smart for us to find a daycare that he wants to go to.

  23. My nephew needs to start going to daycare later this year. He is really attached to his mom and I think he will have separation anxiety. Thanks for pointing out that it would be smart to not discount his feelings.

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