While it’s flattering to be a toddler’s chosen one, being prized can become a drain when our child’s dependency gets out of hand. In this episode, a mom writes to Janet for help with her 2.5-year-old daughter, who she says has always had separation anxiety and continues to need the mom’s constant presence to feel comfortable and happy. Whenever this parent tries to separate, even when it’s only to the next room, her toddler cries. “She is never soothed or comforted by other family members (even her dad) and will only accept comforting from me.” Janet offers a small adjustment this parent might make in her response and explains how this can help her toddler or a child of any age, even a baby, feel more trusting and comfortable when separating and in the company of others.
Learn more about Janet’s “No Bad Kids Master Course” at: NoBadKidsCourse.com.
Transcript of “My Toddler Won’t Separate or Warm Up to Anyone Else”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled.
Today I’m going to be responding to a question from a parent who says that her two-and-a-half-year-old has always had separation anxiety and can’t get comfortable with grandparents, even the child’s father. This little girl gets upset whenever her mother isn’t there to care for her and seems especially anxious around family members that try to engage her or touch her. This parent’s wondering if there’s anything she can do to help her child become more comfortable in these situations and take some of the pressure off this parent, who feels like she’s the only one her daughter will be contented with.
Okay, so here’s the question I received:
Thank you for all the work you do. I have a question about my daughter’s separation anxiety from me (mom) that has seemed to be present since birth.
I’ve always tried to be respectful of her communication. So as an infant, when she showed distress at being held by other family members, I always took her back or, if I had to leave the room, I would let her play on the floor instead of forcing her to be held by somebody else. My mom said that when she seemed upset, I should say, “It’s okay, it’s just grandma.” But I wanted to respect that she didn’t want that physical contact with someone, as we would with an older child who didn’t want to give a hug to a family member. When she was six weeks and I had to go to my postpartum appointment, I left her with my husband and he said that she screamed bloody murder almost the entire time until I returned.
Now, at two-and-a-half, she still has barely ever been left with anyone but me—only for my medical or dental appointments—and she still does not like to be picked up by other family members. She’s very independent when we are at home or in familiar public places like the library, but at family members’ houses if I go to the bathroom she starts crying anxiously for me, even if she was playing independently up until that point. Unlike other children in the family or whom I have worked with, she is never soothed or comforted by other family members, even her dad, and will only accept comforting from me. If she is already happy and comfortable and I am around, that is the only time she can enjoy other adults. And they have to work really hard to be fun or silly or she wants nothing to do with them. She’s definitely more anxious around the family members who have been known to try to pick her up, such as grandma, than the ones who have always given her space.
I guess I’m wondering if I should have allowed her to get used to being held by others when she was an infant. Was she too young for me to employ the rule of not forcing a child to hug anyone she doesn’t want to? But I’ve never seen another baby who is so bothered by being held by others, so I also wonder if it is just her inborn personality.
Okay. While this in its entirety is a very specific issue this parent is having, it’s common for children to be slower to warm up to other people besides their primary caregiver. And that makes sense, right? They’re used to this person, they’re comfortable with this person, and getting comfortable with somebody else outside of this first person they’ve bonded with or are bonding with requires a little stretch for them. It’s a little uncomfortable. And it’s true what this parent says, that some children are more sensitive to this than others and it’s harder for them. They don’t want the touch and smell of that other person or the way that person touches or holds them. It’s unfamiliar.
And I love that this parent was considering that from her child’s birth, it sounds like. She says to me, “I’ve always tried to be respectful of her communication. So as an infant, when she showed distress at being held by other family members, I always took her back.” Because this parent believes that, she believes the truth, which is that a baby deserves the same respect as an older child.
And now her child is two-and-a-half and is still struggling with this. Some of what the issue is is really not something to be concerned about. The fact that her child doesn’t want to be held by people other than her mother, that’s very understandable. But the fact that she can’t be comfortable when her mother leaves the room and she feels, I don’t know if it’s unsafe or that she’s unsure of what other people might do, but the parent can’t get away at all and is kind of trapped. That’s rough, right? When we feel like we can’t get away for a minute without our child expressing displeasure.
And a lot of parents come to me with that issue, saying their child won’t separate, clings to them, what can they do? And it’s really only one thing that I recommend that it sounds like this parent might not be doing, and it’s something that most of us in this situation don’t consider. We miss it, and actually it’s something that we miss in a lot of areas with our children because it’s kind of a brave thing to do. It’s not something that is practiced in our society and it requires this leap of faith.
If you listen here, you’ve heard me talk about this before: really welcoming those feelings. Really welcoming a child to share that discomfort. And that’s kind of the step beyond the wonderful respect that this parent is showing her child, respecting her wishes, not wanting to put her in situations where she shows any discomfort. This is a step even further that’s even more respectful, because what it is is seeing and hearing and welcoming a child to share. That’s the opposite of what is commonly done, which is what this parent says that her mother does, which is, “It’s okay, it’s just grandma.” That’s invalidating, right? Taking our child away or moving them away from that person is thoughtful, and that’s respecting what we are assuming is their wish right then. But the place that I recommend that goes even further is allowing our child to be in that space with their feelings while they have our full support and that we’re acknowledging them.
And this is also a difference that I talk about a lot on this podcast, which is the really important difference between acknowledging and accommodating. When we accommodate, when we say, Oops, you’re crying or you’re showing displeasure with this person, so I’m going to move you away, that is accommodating. And there’s nothing wrong with that, but accommodating tends to keep our child stuck in the discomfort because what it does is it affirms to our child that we see their discomfort as very valid and something that we need to fix, instead of valid and something that they need to express to us. That’s the difference. Both are saying it’s valid, but one is wanting to hear and know about discomfort.
Because this is a precious thing that our child is sharing with us, especially as an infant. I’m telling you something, and because I don’t have the words, this is the way I’m telling you that I’m feeling something here. This is new, this is different. I don’t know this person. I wouldn’t give my child over to someone and then try to acknowledge the feelings my child has while they’re in that person’s arms. I would not take the step of letting this person hold the baby until I had the sense that the baby was saying it was okay. And I’m going to talk about that whole process, but first, I just want to make this overall point that I believe that if this parent started to welcome all these feelings their child is sharing with her as a toddler now, and not be afraid of them and not let them stop her in her tracks or prevent her from going to do the things she needs to do to separate.
And ideally if the person that’s with the child when mom separates, if this is dad or grandma or somebody else if mom’s going to the bathroom, ideally these people will also welcome the feelings. But again, it’s a counterintuitive thing. I wouldn’t expect that people will be able to do that, but that would be the ideal. That dad could say, “Oh gosh, you want your mom so bad. You don’t want me here with you right now. You want to be with mom, right? She’s the one that usually gives you that bath, she’s the one that usually” whatever it is.
To be able to be in that place with our child, unintimidated by the sharing, in fact wanting the sharing—it’s such an opportunity for bonding. I’ve been in this situation with my own children, with other people’s children. That will level you up each time in your closeness if you can be brave and welcome a child to share. This is true with a preschool teacher or a kindergarten teacher or the new caregiver or the old caregiver on a time when the child is just feeling vulnerable and didn’t want the parent to leave that day. The grandparents, the aunts, the uncles, the friends. I’ve seen the bonding effect that bravely welcoming a child’s feelings has. Really welcoming them, not just saying words, “It’s okay to be sad,” but Yeah, I feel you. It’s amazing what this does, but it’s a scary one and it’s still scary for me after all these years. So getting over that hump is very scary.
And you have to believe in it. I mean, maybe what I’m saying here sounds ridiculous and you don’t believe in it and you don’t agree with it. That’s okay, too. This is what I recommend and I know that it works and it helps and it’s what our children need to pass through these different things that they’re going through.
And when this parent says that when her child is around family members, they have to really do a song and dance and a show to be fun or silly to get her attention, that’s not really fair to those adults. I mean, it’s fine that they want to do that, but that’s a lot of work that we don’t need to do. We can be our genuine self with children if we allow them to go through all the feelings that they have about us.
When I have a new child in my class, people coming to the door, they’re holding their baby, and the baby will look at me. And the younger a child is especially, the more they just look at you so openly, right? They’re looking straight into you, and you can kind of read their feelings of, Who are you? Can I trust you? And I always acknowledge that. I’ll say hello to whatever the child’s name is, “Yeah, you don’t know me, you’ve never seen me before, and now you’re coming into this room with me. Who is this lady, right?” I’ll reflect back that vibe that I’m getting from the child and help them to know that it’s really okay with me and it’s valid for them to feel all those things about a new situation and a new person. And I want to encourage that sensitivity in them. That’s why young children are such great learners, because they are so open and sensitive and that’s a good thing. So I want to let them know, “Yes, I’m sure you’re feeling a lot of things. Who’s this lady? Yeah, you’re looking at my hair. Yeah, I have different hair than your mom does.” Whatever it is, I want you to share it with me.
And I’ll do this if I’m going into somebody’s house. I mean, that’s even a more intimate situation that now I’m in your house and I’m sitting with your parent. You don’t know me. Who is this lady talking to your mom? Setting boundaries with you sometimes, if that’s what I’m modeling in that consultation. Who is this person? I don’t expect you to be comfortable with me. I’m brand new to you.
So with this parent, with the family members and the grandparents, I would do this from the very beginning the next time you’re all together. As soon as your child is expressing something about somebody there, “You’re looking at grandma. Are you wondering if she’s going to want to hug you today? Yeah. Well, grandma’s not going to hug you unless you want it, but yeah, I see the way you’re looking at her.” And of course, if grandma could do this too, that would be incredible, but it’s okay, we can still help bridge that for our child. And also we’re kind of modeling for the other adults there that this person has a perspective that’s valid. And the more we allow it, the easier it’ll be for her to pass through it and feel more trust and feel more comfortable with us. That’s how the process looks.
So then I wouldn’t try to entertain her or get her attention. I would encourage everybody to trust that they’re enough. And if you really allow her to be herself and see her and acknowledge her, understand her as she is, where she is in this process, that will help her to want to come to you. And I’ve seen this happen so many times. If we do a big show, then in a way we’re kind of distracting our child from, it’s not a negative thing, but we’re distracting her from those feelings that she has. And we’re performing in a way that we should never need to have to perform with a child. We get to be ourselves in these relationships. That’s what the deepest kind of respect is. Respecting ourselves, respecting our child.
If I had to get up and go to the bathroom and my child may not be comfortable with these people, I’m not expecting her to run up and jump into their arms. I’m asking them not to approach her because I want them to trust that she will come to you if you allow her to be herself. Now I’m going to go to the bathroom, and now she’s upset and she’s screaming, “Oh, you don’t want me to go. You’re not sure about these people, right? Yeah, you’re used to me all the time. It’s hard for me to leave.” I’m saying that as I’m leaving. You can share with us. We want to know. We want to hear about it. I go to the bathroom, I come back, now maybe she’s yelling at me some more. “You didn’t want me to go. Yeah, you’re still sharing with me. You can tell me all those things.” And at her age, she may have some words she’s saying, so just reflect all of them. Nothing to fear here, nothing to fix. It’s freeing, but it’s scary at the same time. So that’s the key that I hope you’ll try.
And when this parent says, “she’s definitely more anxious around the family members who have been known to try to pick her up, such as grandma, than the ones who have always given her space,” you might even bring that out into the open, too. “I know grandma tried to pick you up before and you weren’t sure if you were ready, so now you’re not sure if she’s going to try that again. It’s okay. I talked to grandma and she’s going to wait because she knows that you will want to come be with her at some point when you’re ready.” Just something like that. No secrets here, no unsaid things, no things we’re afraid of, things we’ve got to fix, things we’re worried about. Putting it all out there. The more you do this with your children, the more freedom you’ll feel and the closer you’ll all feel.
It’s like the way sometimes when we can say something to a partner about something we’re unhappy about in the relationship, and the person accepts that or hears it. Maybe they don’t agree with it, but they hear it and they still accept you and seem to still like you and want to be with you. How much more do we love that person after? How much closer do we feel? A lot of us weren’t allowed to express anything remotely negative or not what people wanted to hear and still feel accepted. That’s why it’s so scary, I think that’s one of the reasons. So there’s a lot that this parent can do right now.
I also want to speak to her comment where she said, “I’m wondering if I should have allowed her to get used to being held by others when she was an infant. Was she too young for me to employ the rule of not forcing a child to hug anyone she doesn’t want to? But I’ve never seen another baby who is so bothered by being held by others, so I also wonder if it’s just her inborn personality.” So yes, I agree it is a sign of her inborn personality, that she is on the sensitive side. And I also agree that she shouldn’t have forced her to get used to being held by others when she was an infant. That’s not what this is about. “Was she too young for me to employ the rule of not forcing a child to hug anyone she doesn’t want to?” Absolutely not.
But interestingly, this idea of accepting all feelings that children have, it seems to be becoming almost a mainstream idea, the way there’s so much acceptance and talk about this idea of letting feelings be. And that was not the case five, 10 years ago. So that’s a wonderful thing, right? That we’re realizing that feelings need to flow, and that’s the key to everything: Our child’s behavior being understood and helping them to move through it. And improve their behavior, if we want to see it that way. For them to have emotional fluency, social-emotional intelligence. To feel close to us, to feel wholly accepted. This is wonderful progress that we’re all making. And maybe I’m imagining that it’s becoming mainstream because it’s very much around in my world, but even if it’s a little more in that direction, it’s wonderful.
The interesting thing, though, is that this idea, for most people it starts somewhere in the toddler years, this idea that children have feelings to express and need to express them. It’s still uncommon for people to consider that an infant has this need. And that’s what’s quite different about Magda Gerber’s approach. And one of the things that stuck out for me so strongly when I heard it from her was that even a baby has a right to cry. Now, if we don’t quite think of a baby as a full-fledged human being quite yet, that maybe we think of them as this more simplified state, then we will maybe only be able to imagine that allowing a baby to cry is abandoning them, letting them cry it out, not caring, forcing them to. Not something that we are intimately involved in supporting. So that’s an idea I would like to bring forward here.
Because this parent is certainly right in that she shouldn’t force the baby into someone else’s arms and try to force them to get used to it. But what the parent did, and what most people do is, she just thought, Uh-oh, she’s saying no, so I’m going to avoid this situation. Instead of hearing all the in-between. What’s in between accommodating our baby in the situation and forcing them to be in an uncomfortable situation or leaving them to have uncomfortable feelings or distress. Never ever, ever do we need to do that. The truly respectful, loving place is in between, where we’re curious about what our baby is sharing, and we’re not assuming that we have to fix this, that allowing it is some kind of abandonment or not caring about what our child is feeling. It’s the exact opposite. It’s noticing the nuances of what they’re expressing. And babies cry to express a lot of nuance because they don’t have those words to say yet. Now, obviously, we don’t want the baby to get to a point of deep distress If we can help that.
Here’s the process that I recommend. So here I am, here’s grandma. I’m holding the baby. Grandma says, “I want to hold the baby,” or reaches out for the baby. Of course grandma wants to hold the baby, right? I stop. I maybe gently put my hand on grandma, or I somehow gently block and I turn to my baby in my arms. I make sure the baby can see grandma, and I say, “This is your grandma. She would like to hold you right now. What do you think about that?” And I hold my baby up a little closer towards grandma, and I check it out with my baby. I read her body language, I look in her eyes, I see if she’s showing comfort or trepidation. And if I see any kind of trepidation, I say, “It looks like you’re not sure yet. That’s okay. We can wait.” But then let’s say grandma’s reaching out and my baby starts to cry. “Oh, that’s not making you comfortable, right? This is a different person here. It’s your grandma. You’re going to get to know her very well, but you’re not ready for her to hold you right now.” Something like that.
And what this does is it takes us down a path of acknowledging instead of accommodating. So our child gets this message as early as possible that they’re allowed to have a process of getting comfortable with people. It’s not about you’re either comfortable or you’re not. It’s this in-between. Where are you now? What are you saying? What are you noticing? We can talk about all of it. And I know there’s some people that are going to think, well, how could you do this with an infant? Mostly, they’re people that haven’t ever tried it. So try it, if you want to. Because there is some truth in what this parent’s saying about if she could have allowed her child to start getting used to people earlier. She could have, and that’s the way. Through acknowledging, through being open to and bravely willing to accept and put words to what our child is feeling.
And if we don’t know, we say, “I don’t know. I’m not sure if you’re ready. Hmm.” Maybe grandma reaches out, “Let’s see. Let’s see how this goes.” And then the baby starts crying, “Oh no, it seems like you’re not ready yet. You don’t want grandma to hold you.” And then even with grandma holding her right there, I’m still there in close contact with her, letting her know that if she looks at me with those scared eyes, yes, I’m going to take her back. But it’s possible that she just wants to express, This is so new. This is all brand new. Who is this person? They hold me differently than mom does. Consider that there’s a lot more to what our children feel from the time they’re born than extreme things. Total distress, I can’t handle this!, and Okay, I’m fine with it. When we simplify babies that way, we can both get stuck in these kind of patterns that may have been created here, this very loving way of accommodating. It’s easier to start considering welcoming a child’s feelings as early as possible. And it’s helpful for us too to know that, Oh, there’s nuances here. Every cry isn’t an emergency that I have to fix.
And when I’m caring for my child’s specific needs, they’re crying because they’re hungry or tired, even then we’re of course filling the need, but we’re also acknowledging, “My, you’re in a very big hurry. You want to eat right now while I’m getting my pillow, while I’m getting comfortable. Yeah, it’s so hard to wait sometimes when you’re hungry. I’m glad you’re telling me that. I always want to know what’s going on with you.” Those messages. Or, “Oh gosh, I think you may be getting very tired. We did a lot today.” Or, “This person’s brand new to you. You never saw him before. It seems like you’re saying no, you’re not quite ready for him to be this close right now. Thanks for letting us know.”
That kind of openness goes a very long way. I mean, it lasts all the way through our kids’ adulthood where they can tell us all the hard things, all the uncomfortable things, the things that are happening right now between us, even. It’s powerful because we’re taking care to want to know, instead of giving them that message subtly, lovingly, that we don’t think they can handle this situation at all, even in stages, so we’re going to protect them from it. That’s accommodating. Or telling them, Shh, don’t feel what you’re feeling. It’s okay. It’s just grandma. Don’t feel what you’re feeling. Don’t share what you’re sharing.
If any of this makes sense to you, try it, and please let me know how it goes. And for this parent with a two-and-a-half-year-old or any parent, a parent with a teenager, it’s never, ever too late to start bravely accepting the feelings. Never too late.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlansbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. And my books, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame, and Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting, you can get them in paperback at Amazon and in ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and apple.com.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.