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Toddler Separation Anxiety, Overwhelmed in Groups

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So Jalen is now 17 1/2 months old. My sister has twin girls who are 12 months old. They live very close to us and we see them at least a few times a week. Jalen always gets super excited to see his cousins and my sister, and always has a fun time with them...even though they don't really play together yet, he gets excited being with them.

So my sister and I both stay at home, and decided to try a babysitting swap. I have watched her girls here before and they do totally fine. We were planning on doing one day a week and only for like 2 hours max. since we are working around nap times, and any longer would be too much for everyone involved. So one day she watches Jalen at her house, and one day I watch the girls at my house. It give the babies a chance to play together, learn to play alongside other kids (which I guess her girls already get!), and give us each a chance to get some projects done around the house.

So yesterday was the first day. I took Jalen to her house. He was fine when I left, excited to see the girls. When I came to pick him up, a little less than 2 hours later, he was happy,and then burst out crying. Like sobbing and nothing would calm him down and make him happy. We just decided to leave and then he was fine. My sister said he was fine the whole time there. I'm pretty sure that Jalen just got overwhelmed. He doesn't do great for longer than an hour at social gatherings. That's about his limit and then he kinda melts down and gets whiny and fussy. I figured though since he knows and is really close with my sister and her girls that he would be fine.

He almost never has a babysitter. So he's not really used to me leaving him. My DH is in Law school so I almost never even leave him alone with his dad. I would really like for this to work out. Is there a way to maybe start out at just doing an hour since that's his breaking point now, and slowly extend it? I just don't want him to feel like I'm not there for him, and I don't want these supposed to be fun play dates to turn out to be miserable for him. I also am pregnant with number two...due about a month after Jalen turns 2, and could use some extra help during the week. But definitely not at the expense of Jalen being so sad.

Also he will be able to go to our church's nursery, which is for ages 18 months-3 years. In a couple of weeks. I've been taking him the past few months and staying with him to help with the transition, but I'm still really worried about how he'll do. Its 2 hours and like I said his meltdown point is about 1 hour. He's fine for the first hour but the second gets so whiny and fussy. I really want him to be able to enjoy his time in the nursery, so that he enjoys church, and so that I too can enjoy church. I know its a process and I'm willing to do whatever to help us get there. I think I just need to know the right place to start.

Thanks in advance Dr. Laura!




It is so hard to have your baby break down into sobs and not be able to find any way to comfort him, and it is worse when you know your absence caused his heartbreak. Jalen is a lucky little guy to have a mom who so clearly notices what he needs. From what you've described, he is highly stimulated by social situations, even enjoyable ones, and gets overwhelmed after about an hour. I suspect that his discomfort increases if the event is outside of his own home, and if you are not there. This is very normal for a kid his age, because mom and home provide deep security. However, even when you're with him at home, the presence of other people is a lot for him to cope with, especially if they play with his toys.

That doesn't mean he can't adapt to being in social situations. In fact, they are good for him. If you start gradually, his comfort level will increase over time, and he will develop the inner resources to stabilize himself during these times. You should know, though, that young children continue to feel stress in such situations. Preschoolers at daycare for a full day experience heightened stress hormones (although just mornings is fine for them.) It is not unusual for even four or five year olds to fall apart when Mom shows up to pick them up at school. So the journey to inner dependence, just beginning now for Jalen, is a long one.

What can you do? Exactly what you are doing. Since Jalen knows your sister and his cousins (and their house, presumably), so well, your plan of two hours a week there is perfect. I suspect that with your support, he will be fine during the two hours they are at your house each week. To ease the adjustment of his time there, just begin slowly, as you suggested, by being gone for a short time. That way he begins to develop confidence that you'll be back. You might also make sure that your sister offers him a lot of connection, so he feels secure. I'm sure she loves him, but it is easy for a mom of 12 month olds to see a17 month old as so big that he hardly needs her. Check out A 12-Step Program to Help Your Toddler with Separation Anxiety for more info on how to make this transition as smooth as possible.

What you are doing with the church nursery sounds exactly right also. Staying with him so that he gets comfortable there is laying a foundation for him to enjoy it in the future. Wait until Jalen is comfortable for the full time at your sister's, and greets you happily when you pick him up there. Then you can begin leaving him at the church nursery. Presuming he cries when you leave, have a nursery staffer call you on your cell phone as soon as he begins to stop crying, so you can come back in. If possible, you don't want to return while he's crying, or he'll think that's the best way to get you back.

Of course, if he cries for more than five minutes, just go back, and don't try again for a few weeks. And if he doesn't cry, go back after five minutes, then ten minutes, etc., so he never gets nervous about your absence. Also, before you begin leaving the nursery, it is important that Jalen bond with a specific staffer there. If he doesn't have a “special” person, he will feel abandoned and alone. Once he has that person, they can comfort him in your absence. Of course, you will need to build up very gradually to the full two hours, but eventually you will be enjoying your church service and Jalen will be enjoying the nursery.

My final advice would be to strike a balance between filling Jalen's normal developmental need to have his mom close by at all times, and another need he doesn't even know he has: to learn that other people also love him and can keep him safe and happy. He has a little sibling on the way, and it will be critical at that point to have his Dad very involved with him. I know DH is in law school, but if he is adding another child to his family, he has to understand that you cannot meet all the emotional or physical needs of two little ones at once. For Jalen to make a smooth adjustment to the baby's arrival, it will help enormously if before the baby comes Jalen has a very special relationship with Daddy, and spends regular time alone with him everyday.

Don't give up because of Jalen's tears yesterday. Just like everything else with kids, it's a gradual process, and you won't believe the change in a year. They all find their own independence, and the more you meet their dependency needs as they grow, the more stable their self-reliance is when they're older. Keep up the good work!

Thanks Dr. Laura!
Although my DH is in law school he is a very involved of the things I love about him. He lets me sleep in and gets up in the mornings with Jalen so he does have 2 hours alone with his dad every day...I guess I didn't count that since I'm in the house... but I should! Anyways, Jalen has a really great connection with his dad and I know he feels safe with him.

We had another play date today, this time at my house. It was only for about an hour and a half. Jalen did well, since he was on his own territory. He got fussy at the end but I think that was mostly due to him being hungry and tired, the end of the day is always hard and his afternoons I typically try to keep pretty mellow for that exact reason. I don't really know a way around that though, with the play date situation....until my sisters girls make the switch to 1 nap and then we can do mornings instead, when Jalen is typically a little more easygoing (aren't we all!)

So I'm going to do what you suggested and start out slow and increase the time away slowly, until his tolerance rises.

I really appreciate your help and time Dr. Laura...especially for over analyzers like myself!

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