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Quick reference medical handouts used by Pediatric offices

My 18-month-old has a fit every time my wife walks away from her, what can we do to about this?
While your daughter’s inability to separate from her mother may seem extreme, it is a normal phase in child development. There are many toddlers who cling to one parent (usually mom) like a cellophane wrap and any attempts to separate them produces heart wrenching hysteria. Frequently, a youngster will want one parent over the other. This usually exhausts the parent in demand and leaves the excluded parent feeling left out. Stranger anxiety reaches a peak between 15 and 24 months just prior to the development of real language. When the clinginess is excessive, however, it is important to see what might be causing it.

A toddler’s greatest fear is separation from their parent. Developmental, the child realizes that parents come and go. All it takes is one or two frightening experiences by well-meaning parents and the child becomes desperate to have a parent near at all times. For example, a mother puts her child to sleep and has to go to the store. She asks a neighbor to stay with the child until she returns from her shopping. The child awakens while mom is gone to find a stranger in the house. Frequent episodes like this justify the youngster’s fear of separation.

Extreme separation anxiety can be a response to other distressing events in the child’s life such as divorce, death, or the birth of a new sibling. In addition, extended or repeated hospitalizations and changes in the youngster’s living location can add to a child’s anxiety. Using threats as punishment (“If you are not good at the store, I am going to leave you there”) sends the message that abandonment is possible. Parents who come to their child’s “rescue” every time they cry unknowingly contribute to separation anxiety. This promotes the youngster’s inability to comfort themselves in times of need. Parents who have never left their child with a baby sitter or grandparent have never allowed their youngster to experience separation.

What you should not do:

1. Force the child into the feared situation. Making the child leave her mother will only increase her fear. 2. Ridiculing her for being a “mama’s girl.” This will not help.

What you can do:

1. Always help your daughter do those things that she can do by herself.

2. The two of you should sit with your daughter and watch a PBS show together. As she becomes engrossed in the program, have mom leave for 30 seconds to a minute before returning. This shows the child that mother does go away but always comes back.

3. Get your daughter involved in things that you are doing like making dinner or cleaning the house. This might be a little difficult at first, but it reassures the child that even though you are busy, you are always around.

4. Visit a friend who has a child of similar age. Have everyone sit on the floor and play together. As your child starts in interact with the friend, the two mothers can move away to a chair where your daughter can see you.

5. Maintain a constant routine so your daughter knows what to expect during the day.

6. Do not always give in to your daughter’s demands. Limit the attention to mom and try to redirect her attention to another activity.

7. Provide your daughter with separation experiences by leaving her with grandparents or a baby sitter. First, have the person come to the house one or two times before the actual separation. Have her spend at least an hour or two playing with your daughter. When the day arrives for mom to leave, make sure she says goodbye to your daughter. Never sneak out when she is sleeping. Once mom begins to leave, there is no turning back, even if she begins to cry hysterically. She will stop crying once you go.

8. Give her a picture of the two of you to hold when you have to go. Sprinkle a little of mom’s perfume on her favorite blanket or stuffed animal.

In extremely rare cases, a child’s reluctance to stray from a parent’s side may be a sign of a more serious psychological problem. As she grows older and begins to speak, if she still experiences panic attacks when leaves her side, consult with your pediatrician. Referral to a child psychiatrist or psychologist may be in order. Fortunately, for the majority of kids, clinginess is perfectly normal and only a temporary stage in child development.


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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