What Is The Best Way Of Handling Temper Tantrums At Bedtime That Are Caused By Toddler Separation Anxiety?

You have tucked your child into bed.

The moment you walk out the door, your child begins crying and screaming for you, saying “Don’t leave me!”

You go back in the room, pat your child’s back and sing a soothing song.

Once your child has calmed down, you start to leave the room again.

As soon as you head for the door, your child gets upset again. She doesn’t seem to be faking it either. She really seems genuinely upset, almost grieving, like she’s losing you and will never see you again!

As long as you are there by her side, she is calm, well-behaved and snuggles up to you to fall asleep.

You try to slip out quietly…but she has some freakish radar system that cause her eyes to pop open as soon as you take a step away — and the crying starts again.

Eventually, you end up staying until your child is asleep…really asleep, before you leave.

Problem is, by then you have fallen asleep, too!

Night after night this happens. It’s getting to the point that you are basically sleeping in her bed with her, not getting any quiet time to yourself or with your partner, and just dragging yourself from her bed to yours when you wake up.

Even then, you don’t get a full night’s sleep, because the cycle starts up again if your child wakes up during the night.

Toddler separation anxiety is a common cause of bedtime tantrums because they are developing trust and a sense of security. It is still normal for toddlers not to sleep through the night or to need help falling asleep.Toddler Separation Anxiety

Somehow, sometime, toddlers need to get their security needs met. So some will be clingy all day and fine at night or independent during the day and insecure at night.

Toddler separation anxiety tantrums seem very genuine. The child acts terrified of being left alone, screams, clings, and grieves when you’re gone.

If separation is the cause of your child’s bedtime tantrums, they will usually surface as you are saying your final “goodnight” and attempting to leave, or after you’ve left and your child is alone.

It is a common practice for parents to handle toddler separation anxiety at bedtime by sneaking away when the child is calm.  But this is only a quick fix that backfires later.  It actually scares children to realize their parents can just disappear or are willing to leave them, so they become more clingy.

Another common practice is to let children “cry it out,” until they finally give up on parents returning. This approach falls under the category of “Just because it ‘works’ doesn’t mean you should do it!” Infants are learning to trust; it’s their number one developmental task. So it’s obvious letting them cry it out would not help them learn to trust and feel secure. There are also lots of negative neurological and psychological side effects of this practice. (See https://www.facebook.com/ScienceNaturePage/videos/1252517954880460/)

Instead, you want to handle toddler separation anxiety tantrums lovingly and helpfully, by meeting the child’s needs.  As your child develops trust, she will work through separation issues quicker and will be more secure in the long-run.

To handle temper tantrums caused by toddler separation anxiety at bedtime, use The Parent’s Toolshop® Universal Blueprint® problem-solving system and “PASRR response formula.” 

First, identify the cause of the tantrum.  If you are not sure what type of tantrum you are facing, read the article that describes the four types of tantrums your child is having and then read the appropriate article to get the best plan for that particular type of tantrum.   If the cause is separation anxiety at bedtime; here is a step-by-step plan to follow.

Prevent the problem: If you always rush into soothe children the moment they start having bedtime tantrums, children don’t learn how to soothe themselves.   Instead, try these suggestions:

  • Teach your child how to comfort himself. Your goal is not to have your child fall asleep while you are still present, but rather to have your child in bed, self-soothing, relaxing and eventually falling asleep.If “lights off” increases the toddler separation anxiety tantrums, use a soothing musical infant light or a regular nightlight if sounds keep your child awake.
  • Allow your child to choose a comfort object, do quiet movements (rocking) or make self-calming sounds (singing) to help relax by self.

If or when they fuss, use the following response.  

Acknowledge feelings: Tell your child that you know he/she likes to be near you and that it’s okay if he/she doesn’t fall asleep right away. It doesn’t matter if your child is too young to understand. Your reassuring tone of voice and gentle, loving touch will convey the message. (Plus, it is good for you to practice this skill/step, as it is the tool that can prevent most situations from escalating.)

Set limits: Reassure your child that he/she is safe, you are nearby and you will check on him/her. Say something like, “It is time for you to rest in bed. I’ll come back soon to check on you.” No need for a long diatribe or pleading with your child to stay in bed, which can turn into a power struggle.

Redirect behavior: If your child starts to cry after you leave, do not “rescue” immediately or your child will learn to expect it. Also don’t let your child “cry it out” indefinitely. Children can get worked up so quickly, it can set you back to square-one. Instead, use the following process.

You only need to take the first three steps once, then repeat the following step as often as needed.

Reveal discipline:  Use a systematic check-in routine:

  1. Wait a short time, like three minutes, then come back to check on your child.
  2. Soothe your child in quiet ways but do not talk to or pick up your child.
  3. Do not increase the time between your checks until your child handles three minutes well.
  4. Then increase the wait to five minutes.
  5. When your child handles five minutes, increase to ten, and so on.

The next night, try starting at the time limit your child handled the night before. If your child fusses sooner, wait one more minute, then restart your “count” at however long he/she lasted. Then repeat steps 3-5 above, replacing “three minutes” with whatever count you are on.

The key to the success of this approach is that children know they can rely on you coming back, so they don’t need to fuss, and the time limit does not become unreasonable.

It will take some time for your child to master the self-soothing techniques.  Be loving, patient and consistently follow the suggestions above and soon the need of handling temper tantrums at bedtime caused by toddler separation anxiety will fade away. 

I hope your bedtime experience will soon transform into a pleasant routine that works like a dream!  If you want additional insights, information and practical tools and tips about bedtime issues, read the other articles in this series: “Looking for Bedtime Routines to Make Bedtime Peaceful?”, “How Can I Help My Child Through Bedtime Tantrums Caused By Fear?” and “What Is The Best Way Of Handling Temper Tantrums At Bedtime That Are Caused By Toddler Separation Anxiety?”. You can also get the Halting Bedtime Hassles Teleseminar package.  It takes you step-by-step through all ten bedtime problems and how to get your children in bed, asleep, and staying there through the night.  Click here to get your copy now.

Jody Johnston Pawel, LSW, CFLE is President of Parent’s Toolshop® Consulting, where she oversees an international network of Toolshop® trainers. For 30+ years, Jody has trained tens thousands of parents and family professionals worldwide through her dynamic workshops and hundreds of interviews with the media worldwide, including Parents and Working Mother magazines. She is the author of the award-winning book The Parent’s Toolshop®, and countless multimedia resources that support and educate parents from diverse backgrounds, plus other adults who live or work with children. You can find them at her award-winning website, www.ParentsToolshop.com.

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