How to Ease Separation Anxiety with 5-Step Trust Training

It takes some time, but the tear-free drop-offs are SO worth it.

Photo by Jordan Whitt on Unsplash

Any parent knows there are few things worse than having to leave your child bawling their head off in the care of someone else.

I’m familiar with a lot of different methods to deal with separation anxiety because I’ve tried most of them– and I hate them all.

The following common methods will probably be familiar to you.

The Method: You get your child settled in with a toy, playing happily, then when they’re not looking, you sneak away.

Why It’s Recommended: It’s nice for parents. You can walk to your car and just pretend that everything is fine. Ignorance is bliss, right?

Why It Sucks: At some point, your child will look up. And they’ll realize you’re not there. To them, they’re now all alone in the world. You’ve abandoned them. No wonder they start crying!

The Method: Like a relay runner grabbing a baton, the childcare worker pries the clinging, crying child from your arms and says, “Go! Go! She’ll be fine! Just go!” You hurry away from the sounds of her screams while trying to hold back your own tears.

Why It’s Recommended: After enough of these traumatic handoffs, the kid will get used to it, right? It’s like exposure therapy: They face their worst fears often enough and then they won’t seem so bad!

Why It Sucks: Do I even have to explain this one?

The Method: It’s a combination of the Sneak Out and the Band-Aid: Like the Sneak Out, you get a child settled with a toy, but you don’t just disappear on them. Instead, you give them a hug and a kiss and say cheerfully, “Goodbye, darling! I’ll see you later!” The child then bursts into tears and tries to grab hold of you, but you slip out of their grasp and let the childcare worker clean up the mess you’ve left behind.

Why It’s Recommended: Honesty is the best policy! Putting on a happy face and using a cheerful tone lets the child know drop off time is a positive thing. Surely they’ll catch on eventually.

Why It Sucks: Your child is crying their eyes out and trying to figure out why you’re so happy about leaving them.

Like I said, I’ve tried all of these methods with my four kids and they were awful. When it was time for number four to start going into the church nursery when she turned 18 months old, I knew there just had to be a better way.

After a great deal of thought and research, I started thinking I might be able to adapt a method I learned from Tracy Hogg, author of “Secrets of the Baby Whisperer.”

Hogg’s method was designed to be used in sleep training for newborns as a middle-of-the-road alternative to “cry it out” methods and attachment parenting. She recommends putting your baby down for bed sleepy but awake. You say, “Goodnight, darling,” and you leave the room until you hear baby start to cry.

When baby cries, you go back into the room and say “shh” and pat him gently until he settles down. Once he’s calm, you leave the room again until he starts crying again, and then you repeat the process.

The idea behind this sleep method is to help your child develop trust in you. With this method, they know that when they cry for you, you’ll come back. Eventually, they’ll be tired enough that they’ll fall asleep.

So how did I use this baby sleep method to ease separation anxiety in a toddler?

I like to call this method Trust Training, and it looks like this:

  1. Cheerfully take the child into the childcare space. Find an activity you can do together, like building with blocks. Sit down with the child and play for a few minutes (or longer) until they’re happy and comfortable.
  2. In a soft, cheerful tone, say, “Sweetie, I need to check on something really quickly. I’ll be right back, okay?” The child will probably begin to fuss and cry, but that’s okay. Let a childcare worker step in for comfort while you step out.
  3. Step out of the room, somewhere out of sight where the child cannot get to you. Count to 10, then go right back into the room where the child is, and happily say, “See? I came right back.” Then sit down and start playing again.
  4. After a few minutes, again say, “I just need to go check on something. I‘ll be right back.” Leave the room again (your child will probably cry again) and wait about 20–30 seconds. Then come back.
  5. Repeat this process, increasing the number of seconds or minutes you leave the room each time, especially if your child’s reaction improves.

Eventually, the repetition of this little game will bore the child. They’ll be like, “Oh, Mommy’s leaving and coming back again? Whoop-de-doo. Where’s a car I can crash into my block tower?” This happens because at this point your child has learned to trust you. Every time you’ve said you’ll come back, you do. And that means that you leaving just isn’t a big deal anymore. Because you always come back. (That’s right. You’re boring your child into submission.)

Now here’s the kicker: Depending on your child, this might take awhile. In fact, I recommend that you start this method on a day when you don’t actually have somewhere to be, because you might be with (or near) your child the entire time. And maybe plan to be late to work the second day as well…possibly even the rest of the week.

I didn’t come up with the Trust Training method until after I’d had my fourth child. She was very attached to me, but when she turned 18 months old, it was time to start taking her to the church nursery on Sundays. I was dreading it.

I decided to put this new method to the test, hoping it would work. Much to my relief, it did. Before the end of the first day I was able to leave the room for several minutes without her crying.

The following week we had to do it all over again, but it took even less time than the week before, so I was able to leave her for even longer.

Within the first month we’d made it to tear-free drop-offs!

(To my other three kids: I’m so, so sorry I didn’t figure this out until number four. I truly hope I haven’t scarred you for life.)

Isn’t it nice to know that drop-offs don’t have to be traumatic, tearful affairs for you or your child anymore? With just a little bit of trust– and a little bit of training– you can both finally have a GOOD goodbye.

Musings on motherhood, writing, life, and relationships– and the struggle to stay sane through it all.

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