Separation Anxiety and Daycare. Can’t a Dad Get a Break?
First, I want to thank you, my readers, for giving me such great suggestions. Tons of you submitted questions and ideas for posts, and I’m diligently responding, writing, (and plotting and scheming on site improvements!) Many of your questions centered around babies and infant development, so I thought Backpacking Dad’s question was perfect:
The last few times I’ve gone
to the gym I’ve had to turn around almost immediately and head home. My once
delightful, friendly, playful, and charming 13-month-old daughter turns into a
wailing ball of snotty tears when I try to drop her at the gym day care center
It’s made me wonder if they
did something there that she’s afraid of (although I don’t rationally believe
this, it’s the crazy worry that I have when faced with this inexplicable
I’d hate to stop going to the gym. And the child care there is highly recommended by parents I
respect, and I personally like all of the girls who work there. I also don’t want to reinforce
any "if I cry he’ll take me home" attitude she might have begun
In talking with one mom there, who is also a
pre-school teacher, she said that kids go through peaks and valleys, sometimes
very comfortable with everybody, and other times, suddenly and briefly, hating
being separated from mom and dad. Since this is the first time in a year that
my daughter has manifested any such attitude I’m not sure if it’s just a phase
or if there is a problem that I need to work through with her.
Hi Backpacking Dad,
Between about 10- 18 months, there’s a peak in
Separation Anxiety, based on your baby’s newfound independence from you. SHE can now
walk away from YOU…get around the house by herself, even lose sight of you as
she explores. As exciting as that is, it also scares the daylights out of her.
If SHE can go away from YOU…then YOU can certainly go away from HER…..and
so you do, at the gym. Did you study Ainsworth and Attachment Theory in undergrad, by chance? If
not, here’s a link to a classic psychological/developmental theorist who
addresses just this issue.
Now, you say that you trust
the daycare people at the gym, so I would assume nothing bad happened there.
It’s worthwhile to ask them, though, if there was a bossy kid around her one
day? Or perhaps she witnessed a tearful separation with another child and
parent? Anything to give you a clue. Use the daycare people as a resource; ask
them for suggestions and advice.
But the bottom line is this:
Your daughter is facing a really difficult life lesson in separation and
It’s important that you help her through it by being supportive,
but not denying that separations will occur.
She’s still not 100% sure that you
WILL RETURN when you do go away from her. And there’s no way to learn but through experience.
PHOTO: When they start walking, they make the scary realization that YOU can walk away from THEM, too.
Plus, as you say,
you don’t want to give her the message that her tears will be so powerful that
she can control important adult activities.
Having supportive daycare people,
plus an understanding Dad, will help her to learn this important life lesson
and skill in a way that will help her deal with the issue productively in the
I also think it’s important
to model for her that you value some adult time, and your own health, by
sticking to a workout schedule. You can be very understanding with her about
it: Talk with her frequently about what you see as her fears. Be reassuring.
Remind her that you will return. Tell her you know she might cry a little. But her
teacher Ms. So-and-So will be there to help her feel better while you’re exercising.
And then when you return, you’ll both be so happy!
Talk to the teacher first,
to let her know you expect a reaction from your daughter.
Plan it out in
advance. Don’t try to sneak out.
Be upfront and matter-of-fact with your
daughter about it. "I know you’ll be sad, but you’ll be fine. See you
soon!" And then leave. If you must, listen by the door, or have someone
check in on her after 5 minutes. I almost guarantee she’ll be fine after a few
minutes of tears. (She may protest an extra while at first, since her crying
DID deter you from exercising in the past, so surely she’ll try it out again.
But stick with it.)
I know it’s heartbreaking to
see your baby in such distress. I know your instinct is to rush in and make it
better for her. But she’s a toddler now…the baby rules don’t apply as much
anymore. She’s older and sturdier now, psychologically. She’s ready to plow
into this difficult life lesson. And she’s so lucky to have a caring,
thoughtful Dad like you to help her through it in a good way!
If you’re worried that
she might develop "abandonment fears" from being left at daycare, let
me give you an example of how that MIGHT happen: If you took her to a gym that she’d
never been to before, and where you had no knowledge of the quality of the
teachers, and you didn’t give her any time to "warm up" to the
situation, and you just left her there for a couple of hours, without
explaining that you were going, or that you would return, or providing any
reassurance. Just dumped her there. THAT’S what you would NOT want to do. But you’re
so far away from that!
Know that this is good for Erin, AND good for you.
After a nice discussion with
Backpacking Dad about this, he let me know that Erin started walking the following weekend! Surely, her developmental
changes were disturbing her usual acceptance of the separation at the gym. But
he and his wife kept trying, and after a few minutes of tears, his daughter
settled back into her nice gym-daycare routine. Nice going, Shawn! And check out his backpacking "dadventures" here at his blog!