When Toddlers Protest Your Leaving

What’s normal, what’s helpful, when to seek help.

Posted Jul 12, 2018

As a young medical student, part of my pediatric training was to observe a few mornings in a local, well-regarded preschool to get a taste of the “normal” in child development. When I arrived, I saw a knot of toddlers and preschoolers in various stages of upset gathered with a few teachers at the “goodbye window.” Waving hands, noses pressed against the glass and some quivering lips showed this was a tough moment, and the teachers were responding with cuddling, reassuring and soft talking. The moment eventually passed, and free play began, slowly for some, quickly for others.

I later asked the senior teacher about the morning ritual at the “goodbye window.” She explained that it was a tradition that for years had helped children and parents part as best they could. I asked, in my vast inexperience, “Doesn’t calling it the ‘goodbye window’ make it worse by drawing attention to it when just going with the flow would be easier?” She explained, “There is no ‘going with the flow’ for most toddlers when it comes to separating from their parents or trusted caregivers. It’s normal to be upset, and it helps them to master the upset sooner rather than later when we address it with words and support as it’s happening.” There it is in a nutshell: normal, necessary and negotiable (with help). It typically shows up with varying intensity before the first birthday and then periodically until around 48 months. Following are some things that help:

  • Say quick, simple goodbyes to provide the best chance for both of you. Aided by some ritual behavior, the “goodbye window” works! Parting words and facial expressions should reassure them that they will be fine. Do your best not to give in when the lip curls or tears gather in the eye. They need to believe you when you promise, “it will be just fine.”
  • Practice leaving them for short spans of time at first and staying in the neighborhood. Stretch it out only when it seems stable. This may be harder for you than it is for them. Bearing manageable worry is their path to growth and autonomy. Help them stay on it.
  • Use their rhythms to advantage. Separating goes better after feedings and naps when it doesn’t have to compete with fatigue or hunger.
  • Resist the nearly universal temptation to sneak out without a goodbye when they are already busy. The lesson you are teaching them–as you try to avoid some protest–is that you can disappear at any moment without warning. Instead, interrupt them briefly, tell them it’s time for you to leave, reassure them and go. The upset will pass, and their trust in you remains intact when the “bye” is “good.”

The vast majority of separation worry is mastered by Kindergarten. If it persists in earnest beyond that and begins to disrupt school performance and social opportunities, it is time to have a talk with your healthcare provider about getting some support or help. Separation anxiety disorder–the more intense form of separation worry–is easily treatable when it is identified early.