Our toddler has become clingy and suffers separation anxiety after birth of new baby

Ask the Expert: She became very upset when we left her with a new childminder and now won’t even stay with her grandparents

The arrival of a new baby is a big change for a first child who has been used to being the centre of her parents’ world. Photograph: iStock

The arrival of a new baby is a big change for a first child who has been used to being the centre of her parents’ world. Photograph: iStock

 

Question: Three months ago we had our second child. Our first child, who is now 2½, took to it all well enough. However, in the last few weeks she has had a regression and is very clingy and anxious in situations with other kids.

Also, we are in the process of changing childminder, which hasn’t helped. Our original childminder had a baby before Christmas so our first has been at home with Mammy and the baby full time. There has been a lot of change in her life with the childminder gone and the new arrival. 

We tried to start her with a new childminder but she couldn’t settle and got very upset for hours when I left her. We decided to leave it after a few weeks of this. I think we went about it wrong and didn’t do a slow, steady introduction.

Should we hold off changing childminder or perhaps just do it a different way?

Would a slow, steady introduction to a new childminder be better?

Perhaps start with 45 minutes and build it up slowly to let her know we’ll always come back?

We’re eager to expose her to other kids so she can learn to socialise but don’t want to go too far and overwhelm her. I should also say there is now separation anxiety in other situations. She got very upset when left at her grandparents (previously no issues whatsoever). Also, she has stopped interacting at a toddler group she attends when before she would have interacted.

What would you advise to help her?

Answer: When a new baby arrives in a family it is a big change for everyone. It is especially a big change for a first child who has been used to being the centre of her parents’ world. Your daughter has had to move from having all her parents’ attention to sharing this with a new baby. Coupled with this, she has also had to deal with a change of childminder, which could be particularly significant if she was very attached to this person and spent a lot of time being cared for by her.

Even in the best of circumstances, these are all big adjustments to deal with. Even children who take the new change in their stride can display other changes in their behaviour. It is common for children to appear to “regress” or to display anxiety and become more dependent on their parents etc. Often, they are mimicking the baby behaviour as a means of getting their parents’ attention back. 

When responding to your daughter, the important thing is to be empathetic and understanding. Sometimes, when people talk about a child “regressing” or engaging in “attention-seeking” behaviour, it is often used a negative judgement of the child, implying they are doing it “deliberately” or are in some way in control. Rather, it is best is to interpret the behaviour as meaning your daughter needs a little bit of extra emotional support at the moment – she needs to be reassured she is still loved and as important as the new baby.

When children regress or act in a “babyish” way, I often suggest that parents go along with this. Rather than always insisting she behaves according to her age, sometimes it is nice to play a game and let her be your baby. This way, you can give her lots of lovely attention, which can be very reassuring to her.

Moving forward

How you move forward depends on what the needs and pressures are for you as a family and what choices you have available. For example, if mum is not yet returning to work in the short term and if it is working for your daughter to be at home for the next few months, then there may be no need to immediately arrange a new childminder. Certainly, at 2½, there is no pressure for your daughter to learn to socialise and at her age children are often most happy being cared for at home with mum and the new baby. Waiting another couple of months could make all the difference in helping her settle so she can be more secure when she goes out.

Alternatively, you may need to introduce her to a childminder in the next few months and then it can help to do this in a thoughtful and gradual way. For example, you could take the following steps: 1) childminder comes to meet your daughter in your home; 2) childminder plays one-to-one with her in your home for a short time; 3) your daughter visits the childminder for a short time and you stay with her; 4) during a short visit, you stay in background while your daughter plays with the childminder; 5) you leave your daughter there for a short period before returning; 5) you build up slowly to her staying there for longer periods.

You may be able to skip some of the steps above and some may not be possible (for instance, the childminder may not be able to come to your home). However, the key is to go at your daughter’s pace and build slowly. Once she has time to play with and build a connection with the childminder, things will be a lot easier. You can also use this gradual approach to help her relearn to stay with grandparents and to settle more in a toddler group. Also, if you are interested in exposing her to other children, it can be easier to start by inviting them to come to your home in the first instance or to meet one-to-one in a playground. In overcoming anxiety, being patient and making small steps is usually the best way forward.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He is author of several parenting books, including Positive Parenting and Parenting Teenagers. See solutiontalk.ie

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