Q & A – 18MO Separation Anxiety away from Mum

Question:

Hi Aunty

I have a question I hope you have some advice for. Zach* is approaching 18 months and has always been very attached to me (as he should be) and over the last month or so has been rejecting Dean when I am around.

When they have time alone, they get along perfectly, but as soon as I am there Zach will only be with me, shakes his head at Dean constantly and gets very very upset when Dean tries to help me by carrying Zach and when I leave the room, or sometimes even his immediate presence to do something.

I was sure it was a phase, and it probably is, but it’s getting to a point that Dean’s feeling really downtrodden and I am just so physically exhausted because on the weekend or any family time, I still have to do all the physical work with Zach and I really rely on that time to regain my energy for the following week. I’m wondering if you have any strategies. Dean tries to give me a break by just taking Zach, but I am worried that when he removes him from me, Zach sees that as Dean taking me away, and that will exacerbate the situation.

2 cents much appreciated

Answer:

I want to start by sending loads of empathy to all three of you! I really hear the strain that it’s putting on you to feel like even with such great support you aren’t able to properly refill your cup and I hear how it’s starting to feel personal for Dean as he experiences this rejection over and over.

As you say, it is very natural and wonderful for your 18 month to be securely attached to you. You are doing a great job being his North Star and all is as it should be but you want to be able to have time away without that overhanging cloud of Mum-guilt (can you tell I am speaking from experience?!).

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If it helps, this is completely age appropriate. Separation anxiety peaks at this age and will settle around 2 years old. Your baby is becoming a toddler, that means he is starting to develop mastery and understand object permanence as well as developing independence but whilst this is something they are striving for, that separation can also trigger the overwhelming sense to stay close and connected to you like those safe, comfortable old times!

With 18-month-olds, the best way to try and ease the situation is through play. If you are not already engaging in Special Time and roughhousing with both parents I would introduce this concept as part of your daily routine. ST is child-led play so it will be separate from the games I will also suggest but it is a great way to bond and to fill each other’s cups. Your child’s native language is play so they may introduce their own ways to work around this anxiety in this playtime as well.

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In addition, I would suggest these great separation games:

1. Peek-a-Boo – One of the best games to help with separation anxiety is as old as time. You can experiment with different variations such as the simple hands over the eyes or ducking behind a chair or another object and use the same terminology you will use when you separate for real eg. “Mummy is going now, say “bye” to Mummy. Love you, see you soon!” and then “Peek-a-boo. I came back! I will always come back!”

2. Object hide-and-seek – Grab a box or ice cream container or something to hide a small toy (a favourite toy is good as there will be an attachment there). Put the toy under and ask where it went and let him find it and you get excited and say “Oh, there it is! You found it!” If you play this one up a bit you might even get some laughter which will be a great way to release some tension around the situation.

3. Normal hide-and-seek – Obviously with an 18-month-old you make this very easy for him and he may need assistance to hide himself. Again re-iterate “You found Mummy, Mummy always comes back doesn’t she?”

4. You can’t get to Mummy! – Mummy and Zach sit on the couch or floor and Daddy comes and sits between them and says “You can’t get to Mummy!” with an inviting smile, Zach makes his way (very easily) to Mummy whilst Daddy acts like a bumbling fool unable to keep the two apart and Mummy then cheers and congratulates herself whilst Daddy comically plays up his defeat and disappointment and then you go another round.

You will find more games that you can adapt here. These are great preventative measures as are these.

When it comes to the separation itself, prepare him. It helps to have a little ritual such as a short book or a little “goodbye” song so you can say “After (chosen activity) I am going to say “Goodbye” just once and then give you to Daddy (or anyone else).” Then it will also help if Daddy has something set up immediately to distract focus from the separation so they go straight to Playdoh or blocks or outside to the garden.

However, as mentioned, this is normal and the stress Zach feels is a healthy part of his development. That means there is a likelihood that he will cry or tantrum and this is also a natural and normal reaction and he needs that reinforced by you. So if Zach now cries or tantrums then Daddy needs to empathise and validate those feelings:

“You really just wanted Mummy.. I know, buddy!”

“I know, it’s really hard!”

“You’re sad, aren’t you? I hear you and I’m right here!”

“You miss Mummy, it’s ok to feel sad…”

Dad holds him through this release of emotions until Zach is ready to move on.

Which brings us to the really hard part for Dad. It’s also really natural for him to feel hurt by this. I think most Dads go through this (my husband certainly has). It’s not nice to feel rejected but particularly by someone you adore with every inch of your being. Logically, he knows it’s not personal but logic doesn’t always kick in when we are in the moment. So that’s where he has to kick-start it:
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Take 5 (or more) deep breaths and say a mantra such as “This will pass…”, “This is normal…”, “I can do this…”, “This isn’t about me…”, “I am more than enough to handle this…” and during the releasing (which can be very hard for men who have been taught to stifle emotions) “This is what he needs and I can support him through this…” when negative thoughts or self-talk come in, just counter them eg. “He’ll never grow out of this!” countered with “This is a healthy developmental stage…”, “I’ll never be as good as Mum!” countered with “I am his Dad and he needs me too!”, “He’ll never stop crying!” countered with “He is offloading all the overwhelming experiences in his emotional backpack and will feel much better after!”

The above should hopefully calm Dad so he can do what he has to do and Mum is most likely doing the same her end so she can separate knowing that Dad has got this.

Parenting requires a lot of support (far less than we are given) and whilst I feel Dads are really stepping up to the plate in this day and age, I feel like most of them are not well-supported and a lot of it is because males are poorly supported by society from birth. The best resource for all of the above is Playful Parenting by Dr Lawrence Cohen and it is a great read for Dads especially to understand why it can be hard for them and to work on creating change.

One of my best support tools is a weekly Listening session and they work off the Hand In Hand Parenting Listening guidelines. For a specified time I offload whatever I need to whilst my Listening Partner engages in non-judgmental, active-listening with no advice and then we swap. The concept behind this is that all parents have everything they need to solve their own issues and they just need a kind ear to reinforce that they are good and they are great and they can do this. Some men find this concept hard to wrap their heads around so whilst I would highly recommend you both seek LPs, in the meantime perhaps you can do this together. He may find it helpful to really offload how it feels in that moment when he is rejected and it might also help him source exactly what it triggers in him and how he can overcome those feelings and respond with a clear head and heart.

A couple more good links here and here.

You guys are doing a fantastic job! Please keep me updated!

With love,
Aunty Ask xx

*Names have been changed to protect privacy

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