Banishing Those Bye-Bye Blues
You’re beside yourself -- you can’t even go to the bathroom by yourself without a protest from your toddler, never mind leave the house without a full blown melt-down. Every. Single. Time. You try to soothe your toddler to no avail, and you leave feeling miserable. Every. Single. Time.
It’s painful, no question about it. Sometimes you can’t wait for your child to move past this phase. We get it. We wish there was a magic word to say that would do the trick (and that we could bottle and sell it!). Of course, there isn’t. But what if we told you that there are quasi-magical words you can say that can help your toddler “get there” more quickly?!
Before we proceed, we’d like you to just think: if you didn’t know when or if the most important person in your life was ever going to come back, didn’t know whether you would ever see them again, how would you say “good-bye”?!
That’s how it is for our toddlers. Let’s toddle a mile in your toddler’s sneaks, to contextualize and illustrate those quasi-magical words…
And… poof! You’re a toddler! You’ve made the most amazing leaps in development lately — you’re talking! you’re walking! you’re climbing! you know what you want and you want it right now!
But at least one crucial thing hasn’t firmed up yet: your sense of the permanence of things. You’re still quite new to the world, and some basic concepts that adults take for granted are beyond you — for instance, the very fact of existence! You’ve (just barely) reached the “object permanence” phase of development, so when an object is hidden you can usually reason that it still exists. But when your beloved parent disappears out the door it pushes this fresh accomplishment beyond your tolerance.
And you have no sense of time! Abstract units of time make absolutely no sense to you. Just counting to three is a recent thrill, so figuring out when a minute or an hour has passed will not happen for a while, maybe kindergarten. You are firmly planted in the present, in the concrete world, so for something to really exist, you need to be able to see it, touch it, hear it, smell it. A grownup’s promise to return in a minute, in an hour, later, soon…does not compute!
So when your parent says “bye-bye!” and disappears out the door, of COURSE you’re going to cry like it’s the end of the world. To you, it is.
The good news is, there’s a unit of time that can make sense to you. Early childhood experts call it “toddler time” — an event such as a meal, bath, nap, or playtime, which can help you make sense of the passage of time in a concrete way. So, “I’ll be back after your bath” makes perfect sense, because the bath is a specific bodily event — something you understand.
Let’s say your Mommy is leaving, and she wants to help you understand that it’s not forever. She says, “Don’t worry, I’ll be right back!” But you don’t know what “right back” means, and you ARE worried, so you start to cry. Mommy leaves, feeling sad and guilty.
When your Daddy has to leave, he wants to help you understand that it’s not the end of the world. He says, “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” or maybe, “I’m just going to the store.” Your brain can’t yet make sense of something that’s not “sense”-able, so you start to scream. Daddy walks away, feeling frustrated and inadequate because he doesn’t know how to help you.
Here’s what can help:
Mommy tells you she knows that you’re worried, that she sees that you are upset. She tells you she will be home after you have your lunch and your nap. She tells you mommies and daddies always come back. Oh, you didn’t know that. And then, after your lunch and your nap, Mommy comes back. After some repetition, you have a better sense of this routine, which makes you less worried and upset.
Daddy says he sees you are very angry, but that mommies and daddies always come back. Oh, you think, that’s what Mommy said, but I didn’t remember. Daddy tells you he’ll be back after you have your dinner and your bath — and after your dinner and bath, he comes back. After some repetition, you start to feel like you’ve figured something out.
And here’s one more bit of good news: Your parents have not only learned how to label your feelings and reassure you with toddler time, but they have also learned how to keep their faces and voices matter-of-fact while they say “Bye-bye!” and “I’m back!” — which tells you that they are in control, that they know you will be ok. This helps to soothe you as well.
Of course, you still don’t like it when Mommy and Daddy leave — and most of the time you show it! —and you’re still not 100% sure they will reappear. But you’re no longer feeling so much panic and despair, wondering if you will be losing them forever.
And…poof! You’re a grownup again! Your toddler’s still, well, a toddler, though. They only know what they know so far. But validating their feelings, speaking in toddler-time terms and reassuring them of your return can help them understand what’s going on and feel increasingly reassured. Happier departures await you both.
Carol Zeavin holds master’s degrees in education and special education from Bank Street College and worked with infants and toddlers for over a decade as head teacher at Rockefeller University’s Child and Family Center and Barnard’s Toddler Development Center.
Rhona Silverbush studied psychology and theater at Brandeis University and law at Boston College Law School. She currently coaches actors, writes, tutors, and consults for families of children and teens with learning differences and special needs.