Because tranquilizer darts aren't an option.
October 6, 2009 8:05 PM   Subscribe

How do I minimize a toddler's separation anxiety and preserve her mother's hurt feelings?

I regularly watch a 1 year-old who went from a placid, mellow baby who never cared who held her to a strong-willed, emotional toddler who gets hysterical when I leave. This got worse now that the mother is in between freelancing jobs and is around the house much more, as the toddler is confused by having us both around and constantly thinks I'm going to leave. This is typical 1 year-old behavior that simply caught us by surprise, but it's especially awkward every evening when the kid has an ear-splitting meltdown as soon as I put on my coat. The mother, someone whom I also consider my friend as well as an employer, is being a good sport about it, but I can tell it really hurts her feelings. The freak-outs have escalated to the point that the toddler cries so hard she throws up and the mother calls to see if I can come back. I think this is a bad idea that will reinforce the efficacy of freaking out. Am I being too rigid?

Slipping out when she was distracted was a terrible idea, as it apparently led to a worse-than-usual freak out. We tried to make a ritual of walking down the stairs (her favorite activity) so she can see me off, but then she just freaks out in the apartment lobby when I go. As parents, how did you deal with separation anxieties in babies who aren't really receptive to reasoning? Any books you personally recommend for separation anxiety? Tricks for getting out the door with minimum wailing?

I'm also looking for anything to say so the mother doesn't feel so rejected. She's a great mother, funny and inventive, so it's not like the tantrums bespeak a scary Lifetime Movies secret of neglect and abuse. I'm usually the person to whom she voices all of her maternal insecurities, and now I'm a source of more anxiety. I don't want to say anything insincere that makes it look like I feel sorry for her or am just trying to let her save face. So what can I say that diminishes the situation without embarrassing her and/or straining our professional relationship?
posted by zoomorphic to Human Relations (22 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I have no insight for tricking toddlers. They routinely outsmart me. Wait it out maybe?

Mom, however, is probably best served by you being gentle but frank with her. Keep being the person she voices her maternal insecurities to, be a good listener. At some level she knows you're not trying to make Junior throw tantrums, but it's not like not leaving is an option. Does Junior freak when Mom leaves, or only when you do?
posted by axiom at 8:18 PM on October 6, 2009

Best answer: I definitely think going back is a bad idea, not just because it will reinforce the toddler's behavior, but also puts you in a position where your personal time is being infringed upon, and I don't think that's fair to you. If I were in your situation (and I never have been; I've only done it from the other side, where the kid is sad to see the parent go), I would continue the goodbye routine- give little sweetie a big hug and tell her you'll be back tomorrow and that's she's going to have so much fun with Mommy now, and go. Sooner or later, she'll realize that you always come back.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 8:30 PM on October 6, 2009

if you can give lots of warnings about leaving, so she gets used to the idea, it may help.

Like at half an hour say, "we have another half hour to play and then I'm going to put my coat on and go" and at 10 minutes, 5 minutes, 2 minutes, say the same thing, and maybe you can say "Will you help me get my coat on?" Or "Will you help me find my coat, I can't remember where I left it" or something.

But maybe she's too young to understand that. I'm used to 2 year olds, I can't remember how much 1 year olds can do! But generally LOTS of warnings and preparation work well with toddlers.
posted by saturn~jupiter at 8:37 PM on October 6, 2009

If you tell the toddler you'll be back tomorrow, and then you show up two hours later because she cried a lot, that's not good. (But you know this.)

The mom probably knows everything you know, but of course her emotional reaction probably eclipses her reason, so I think the best way to deal with this is to remind her of this. Frame everything as something that you're sure she already knows.

During a non-crisis time, try something like, "I know it must upset you to be around her when this is happening. It's so hard to do the right thing when someone you love is screaming. I want to make sure we're on the same page about what to do about this when it happens, so that we're not just making purely emotional decisions."
posted by hermitosis at 8:39 PM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yeah don't go back, set boundaries enforce them. Trust the mother is a sensible and good person, as well as friend. Kids can be the cruellest, most merciless bastards but every parent and carer I know - whist not immune to the slings and arrows of outrageous favour - know better than to give them serious credence.

Like all things in kids, esp toddlers, their manias, fancies, whims and rages are like a summer shower: swiftly they pass, and even swifter they are forgotten. In a week or two, she may hate you with the passion she loves you now, so best not to worry.
posted by smoke at 8:40 PM on October 6, 2009

I bet you're already doing this, but be sure to tell the child when you'll be leaving so there are no surprises, and then I wouldn't come back - that's just confusing and will make the situation worse next time. Maybe Mom can plan a special thing for them to do together, something that they only do once you leave? That way you can say "I'm going to be leaving in one hour, and after that - you lucky girl! - I heard that your Mom and you are going to _________ " (watch an episode of something on DVD, play with playdoh, feed the fish together, go for a walk to lok at the horses, whatever.

I find even though the concept of an hour/ten minutes/two minutes or whatever is probably fairly abstract to my son, he always manages the disappointing end of play or someone leaving better if he knows what's coming.
posted by lottie at 9:05 PM on October 6, 2009

Crying until she throws up -- wow. That's commitment.

Can you make a game out of your departure -- yawn cartoonishly and say you have to go home for your nap, then pretend to fall asleep, and then wake up suddenly -- whatever, you know the toddler hilarity routine -- and then do it every time? Can she hang on to something of yours overnight each night -- a hairbrush or something equally personal and adult -- an empty changepurse? -- so she'll understand it's yours and she's just holding it for you until your return? (Not a toy or teddy bear or she'll think it's a gift for her, given that she's too young for very complicated explanations.)

As for Mom -- I'll tell you what I'd hope and strive to feel, if I were a mother in this situation: grateful to have someone her daughter loves that much in her life. You must be a wonderful caregiver.
posted by palliser at 9:15 PM on October 6, 2009

As the father of a nearly four-year-old boy who knows how to put on a such a show (he too did the cry-so-hard he barfed routine), I can say, with certainty, that this phase will pass. Chances are good that it will be replaced with something much worse. Or, you and her mother can now deal with it calmly, with a matter-of-fact rationality which might help you in the next few years. Making it into something more than what a one-year-old does naturally will only lead to a place where you or the mother do not want to be.

The one-year-old does not even come close to understanding time. As for the mother's potentially hurt feelings and what to say— be professional. You might feel attached to this child and it to you right now but that will change. In fact, as I think about it, your idea that this query is something which can be framed around you suggests you are making yourself into something more than what the child will ever know — or what the child should know. The best way to preserve that mother's feeling is to demonstrate simply, and quietly, that the child is in the best hands when you leave — even with the tantrum — that only mamma (or papa) can soothe that separation.
posted by Dick Paris at 9:23 PM on October 6, 2009 [2 favorites]

I don't know if this is true in your situation but often nannies are the "fun" adult because their job is first and foremost to pay attention to the child. Mothers have many responsibilities in the home and can't devote as much concentrated time and attention to the child. If this fits, remind the mother that she has the hard job of being the real mother while you have the easier job of being the nanny.

On the topic of preparing the child for you to leave, you might find this visual timer useful. Even a young child can understand that the red section will shrink until it is gone and then it is time for you to go.
posted by metahawk at 9:24 PM on October 6, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks so far. Part of the problem is that we're talking about a leeettle toddler, basically a baby having toddler tantrums. She doesn't yet understand explanations using "words" and "reason," let alone games and visual timers--she understands that someone is leaving when she'd prefer them to stay. I still give her about half an hour warning before I actually leave, but everything seems to go completely over her head. I like the idea about having a special baby-mom thing that I won't do, as well as giving her something I own. Good calls!

I'm really iffy about discussing this directly with the mother. We both know what's going on, but the whole babysitter-mother relationship is a minefield of tension no matter how well we get along as people. We both know what's going on, but I think she's a little embarrassed and would understandably prefer to get forthright advice on this specific issue from someone like her sisters or husband rather than me. In that light, I'm looking for delicate brush-offs rather than head-on collisions.

smoke, it's a very pertinent fact that toddlers are fickle little beasts and that I could fall out of favor at any moment, so I'll try to mention something to that effect! Also, metahawk, you're probably right that the mother is quite tired from running errands, going to job interviews and resume-writing, I didn't think of that.

your idea that this query is something which can be framed around you suggests you are making yourself into something more than what the child will ever know — or what the child should know.

I know that in three years this kid will have no recollection of who changed her diapers. This isn't about me and my feelings, it's about gently easing the baby through a clingy phase and making sure the mother doesn't take anything too personally.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:44 PM on October 6, 2009

Just a suggestion for what to give her to hold on to - when I was a little girl my mom always wore the same perfume. When she had to go away for job training overnight, she would knot together 3 stretchy fabric headbands, spray her perfume on them, and loop one end around my bedpost (so it wouldn't get lost while I slept). I never strangled myself. Now your lil baby friend might be a bit too small for that, but you can perhaps give her some kind of soft fabric like a headband with your perfume on it, so she has your scent nearby?
posted by IndigoRain at 10:52 PM on October 6, 2009

Best answer: I'm really iffy about discussing this directly with the mother. We both know what's going on, but the whole babysitter-mother relationship is a minefield of tension no matter how well we get along as people.

The toddler's picking up on the unspoken tensions and grown-up anxieties in the situation. Some kids are remarkable little barometres for that stuff.

I sympathize with the mother - parenting includes those little moments of bittersweet heartbreak (thinking of how my own mother was the first person to make my firstborn laugh out loud, or how my 2-year-old happily declared she loves Daddy more...) and gnawing insecurity. And I commend you for being so sensitive to the issue and the mother's feelings. It is awfully understanding of you - but it sounds like a little unshakable, sunny firmness might serve everyone better here.

Make the good-byes as short and undramatic as possible; dragging them on with nervous hovering makes them much, much worse. Remind yourself how confident you are that the kid will be ok after you're gone, and let that confidence shine through. This will soothe the mother better than any awkward confessional talks and negotiations.

Stick to a goodbye routine, and a welcome-back routine the next day (our daycare used little songs to mark and ease the transition moments). Never, ever give in and return, as that would just reinforce the lesson that "crying until vom" makes you come back. Stay happy. Stay confident. When you close that door behind you, forget about them until the next day. They're fine.

You're right, the kid's too young for reasoning (and nervous babbling and much words will further confuse and agitate her), so stick to a short phrase ("Bye sweetie! I'll come back tomorrow!") which you then you repeat a few times, every time.

My trick to emotionally challenging situations with kids, mine and others' (as well as some grown-ups!): act at all moments like you know precisely what you're doing. Sounds like both the mother and the kid need someone to radiate that confidence. Fake it till you make it.
posted by sively at 12:46 AM on October 7, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'd say go with the sleepy time routine. Pick a sleepy time song that you play just before youre' leaving, pull on goofy pjs over your clothes and head out.

What about leaving behind a picture of you with a recording (drugstore, electronics store). "I love you, see you soon!"
posted by tilde at 5:42 AM on October 7, 2009

sively's great response leads me to clarify mine: by a game, I meant something simple, short, age-appropriate, and ritual-ish, like peekaboo with the door -- something short, something you can do every time, something that will make her laugh. You could say and do the motions to something that gets increasingly silly, like, "Wave your hands, okay now wave your fingers, now wave your toes, now wave your eyes, now wave your clothes, now wave your tongue -- it's time to go!" Or as another alternative, a very short goodbye song. But everything with confidence and matter-of-fact good cheer, as sively suggests.
posted by palliser at 5:48 AM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: I'm sure you've thought of this, but see if you can get out of the house a lot more when mom is there, despite the yucky weather. If she starts thinking it's you OR mom, not both, maybe she'll start to be excited when you leave. You can also have mom bring out a special treat right when you leave. My charge doesn't get bottles/computer time when it's just me so I am not so popular once Mom gets home.

My boss had a medical issue that required her to be around the house for a few weeks and we had the same problem (when he was 16 months). Usually he was cool with me leaving, because it meant his mom was home and she is more awesome than I am (because she is Mom). That was just how it was and he never thought to protest. Then when he saw that his mom and I could be around at the same time (wow!) he started to get pissed when I left . It lasted weeks after that until he got used to the switch-off again.

My response has always been to pretend not to notice too much to minimize their embarrassment, and be cheerful. It never got as bad as puking or anything like that, which is pretty hard to ignore. I also told them that he asks for them all the time when they're gone, not as easy with a one-year-old.
posted by kathrineg at 6:00 AM on October 7, 2009

Dick Paris: "In fact, as I think about it, your idea that this query is something which can be framed around you suggests you are making yourself into something more than what the child will ever know — or what the child should know. "

I really don't know what this means but if you're implying that she is trying to shove Mom out or take her place--even just mentally--I have to disagree. I have seen that happen and it takes a very different form, usually unbridled criticism.
posted by kathrineg at 6:05 AM on October 7, 2009

Best answer: I have a 15 month old, so I have some understanding of this. I say goodbye to her at daycare exactly the same way every day.

"Yay! We're at daycare!" (let her out of her stroller)
"Go say hi to xyz" (she toddles off)
"OK, I'm leaving now, say bye-bye to mama!" (either nonplussed or panicked grabbing at me)
"You want to give mama a kiss?" (usually the answer is no)
"OK, bye-bye! Have fun and be a good baby!" (walk out the door immediately, regardless of what's going on)

It's up to the daycare providers to deal with any fallout, and I know they appreciate me leaving ASAP.

Regardless of how she reacts, you've got to leave quickly, and clearly. Say goodbye with a smile. If she's crying say, "You'll have fun with mama! I'll see you tomorrow!" Then WALK OUT THE DOOR. Show no anxiety, even if she's full on screaming and crying. Show no hesitation. I think all the "preparation" games/rituals people mention would not work on my daughter or other kids this young. You've just got to leave, and the mom needs to deal with it. If mom asks for advice, tell her to try to play a favorite game, look out the window, go for a walk, or anything else that typically can distract her. If she's still crying 2 minutes after you leave--it's NOT about you. It's about her feeding off the bad stress chemicals that she's having a hard time managing.

If mom calls and asks if you can come back (bizarre! never heard of such a thing) just say, "I can't do that. I already said goodbye and I think this would just prolong the agony."

Clearly mom is not coping well. You can give her advice if you think she can take it, but otherwise, I'd just keep your behavior on the up-and-up and keep boundaries clear.

I'd quit going down the stairs with her. I think that just gets her revved up to spend more time with you. Maybe you can start them playing a fun game together ("roll the ball to mama! now roll the ball to baby!), then say, "OK, I'm going to leave now. Have fun with mama! Bye-bye!" Even if she starts freaking out, you've gotta just walk out the door.

Good luck!
posted by tk at 6:23 AM on October 7, 2009


As you have been and it's been suggested involve the baby in your leaving preparations and have mom do some slight of hand distraction to coincide with your leaving...something like being thrown in the air and caught, or getting a treat, or mom letting the baby play with her cell phone.

I'm always amazed at how my parents can ease my son's tantrums with just a bit of distraction.

And while it's definitely a sore subject you should mention to the mom about your post. Focusing on how to help your exit rather than helping mom's feelings. I think it would go a long way with the mother that you're this vested to her and her baby (especially if she knows we only get one question a week).

You may also want to ask mom to stay unseen during the day. When we had our nanny the days were much better when my wife was locked away in the office and not seen during the day by our son until our nanny was leaving. I'm guessing that another cause of this strife is that the baby always sees mom and knows she is there but if mom is less visible then maybe at the end of the day the baby would look forward to "catching up" with her after you leave.

Good Luck!
posted by doorsfan at 9:23 AM on October 7, 2009

Response by poster: Wow silvey and everyone, this is all really great advice. I'll try to cut down the going away routine to a cheerful goodbye and then get out the door fast, think of some object to give her that she can play with when I'm not there, and suggest some mom-and-kid activity that only happens when I leave. Surely something will eventually prevent these bouts of hysteria, even if it's just growing out of it all together. Many thanks!
posted by zoomorphic at 10:24 AM on October 7, 2009

My message basically reinforces silvey's and tk's. I have a sixteen-month-old who cries when I leave in the morning. When I head towards the front door he runs over and starts crying at my feet. I pick him up, give him a hug, then put him down, wave a cheerful goodbye and then leave promply. He knows I'm not coming back and is quickly enough distracted by his mom.

In a month or two he will be interested in a much wider range of toys and books and it will be easier and easier for his mom to distract him. Hopefully.
posted by louigi at 1:16 PM on October 7, 2009

doorsfan has it. I had the opposite problem with son #2. When he first went to daycare at about 24 months, he LOVED it so much that he cried every day when I picked him up. At first the ladies there were very nice about it, reassuring me that he was having such a great time (obviously) and said that when he realized he would be coming back every day, he would settle down. He never did, and after six weeks they were giving me funny looks and wondering why the kid didn't want to go home. So, I bribed him. Kept his favorite toy and snack out in the car, and told him it was there for him when we left. Worked like a charm the very first day.
posted by raisingsand at 4:16 PM on October 7, 2009

Response by poster: Update!

It seems we just had to tough out the clingy period. I took TPS's no-fuss advice by just walking out the door, and after another two months everything smoothed itself out. She's glad to see me when I arrive in the morning and she's glad to see Mom and Dad (especially Mom) when they come home at night.

There are some events that I think solidified the parents' standing as primary caregivers, since I had the basic advantage of spending the most time with her during the week:

-Spending a week at Thanksgiving and a week at Christmas with family, without me. When I came back she was a little needy, but just in a "Where WERE you" way, not in a "I will cry-puke at your departure" way.
-Her first ER visit (bronchialitis) over one weekend, where Mom and Dad were there to save her from freaky doctors and bright lights.
-Simply growing older and understanding more about her family dynamics. I can now say, "Have fun with Mom/Dad, see you tomorrow!" and she gets my general message.

So everything is ideal now: she knows we all love her but Mom and Dad are the serious parents and I am the person who reads her feminist theory at bedtime. Win-win!
posted by zoomorphic at 2:16 PM on February 11, 2010

« Older Did Mark Twain ever comment on the Seventh-Day...   |   Low-rise tights? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.