Time doesn't mean much to a small child. One-year-olds obviously can't read clocks, and they won't really start to understand measures of time — like “a day” or “two hours” — until they are older. When you leave, your child has no way of knowing that you will be back after awhile; she may very well believe you are gone for good. Learning that people come and go from hour to hour and from day to day is one of the most difficult lessons of childhood.
“Separation anxiety” is a term that describes how truly upset and uncomfortable children become when their parents or other loved ones leave. Crying and tantrums are not uncommon and should not be dismissed or mocked. Instead, you need to acknowledge how your child is feeling and explain that you will be back.
Do not make your leaving long and drawn out, as this will increase your child's worry and will also begin to make her sense that you, too, are upset about leaving. While of course you don't want her to think you don't care, you also want her to see that you are confident and feel safe and secure. Give her a kiss and a hug, tell her “Goodbye, I love you, and I'll see you later,” and then leave quickly, even if you feel like your heart is breaking — don't worry, you'll be back soon!
In the first few weeks of a new care-giving routine, some children do cry for an extended period. Once they get used to the new routine, however, it is very rare for a child to cry for hours. Most children cry for half an hour at most and then settle in.
Most children at this age do go through extended periods of separation anxiety. They can cry for hours, which can be heartbreaking for a parent or caregiver. But this type of distress has no impact in terms of long-term trauma or even on the child's ability to separate later in life.
Leaving Your Child with a Caregiver
If you have to leave your child regularly, for instance, to go to work every day, the best way to help your child deal with the separation is to work into it slowly. Begin by introducing your child to her new caregiver and incorporating this person into your daily routine. In the days and weeks before you return to work, have the caregiver spend time with you and your child, doing the ordinary things you usually do together. This way, your child will associate the new person with you and will not be as anxious when you are gone and the two of them are alone together. If you will be taking your child to a day-care center, be sure you select one that allows you to make multiple preparatory visits with your child. With you at her side, she will be more secure and confident about the new place, the new adults, and especially all the new children. She will also be better equipped to handle separation from you when the time comes for you to leave her there for the day.
The same principle applies when you are preparing to leave your child for shorter periods. At some point, for instance, you will probably want to go out in the evening and leave your child at home. Begin by talking to your child the night before so she has time to assimilate the idea. Introduce her to her babysitter, preferably ahead of time. Let her see you explain her routine to the babysitter, and make sure this person knows what makes your child comfortable. Reassure your child that you will be there when she wakes up, just like always.
Talking Through Fear
Too often parents assume that intellectual explanations won't soothe their young children's fears. Although your child is very young, with an immature grasp of language and communication, talking to him about his fears is still the best way of helping him handle them. Identify the things that frighten him, and then explain them as simply as you can with a demonstration if possible. Lightning is caused by electricity in the sky (turn a lamp on and off to show the connection); thunder is just a clap of air (you can make thunder noises with your mouth and hands); dogs bark to say hello; and the dark happens when the earth turns away from the sun and the moon comes out (show him the moon).
Many children exhibit a fear of strangers, and it's sometimes difficult to determine if their anxiety is the result of fear that you are leaving, fear of the person they are being left with, or a combination of both. Do not force your child to be friendly to someone he isn't yet ready to trust. He needs to learn to trust his instincts.
While this approach may not cure your child of his fears, it will help him understand that the things he is afraid of are not mysterious — they are natural occurrences that you are familiar with and capable of explaining. Everything is new and unexpected to a child; by talking, you are demonstrating that these things that are strange and frightening to him are normal parts of life. This takes away the unexpected element of the scary moment. Don't react too strongly to a child's fears. Once again, the calmer you are, the calmer he'll be.
Children are commonly afraid of the dark and of lightning and thunder, animals, and loud noises. That's one reason these things feature so prominently in so many stories and movies. Bring your child to the library and look for age-appropriate books about these topics. Reading such a story in a nonimmediate moment (that is, when the dog isn't barking or the thunder isn't clapping) is another way to soothe his worries.