Heading to preschool or child care is a huge transition, and it’s normal to be nervous or feel anxious, too. Up to this point, many children have spent every minute of their lives with only their parents or guardians and family members. Being apart for several hours is a whole new world for both of them!
Let’s go over what separation anxiety is and how to put strategies in place to make every child and their family members feel safe and welcome in your program.
What is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in children is a normal developmental stage characterized by feelings of distress, uncertainty, or worry when a child is separated from their primary caregiver or loved ones. It typically emerges around the age of 6 to 8 months and can continue to affect children up to around 4 years of age. Each child is unique and the ages and intensity at which they experience separation anxiety may vary.
Signs or Symptoms of Separation Anxiety in Young Children
Children may become excessively clingy and reluctant to leave the presence of their caregiver. They might cry, hold onto the caregiver, or follow them around.
Crying and distress
When separated from their parent or guardian, children might cry, scream, or exhibit signs of distress. They may be difficult to console and may have trouble calming down.
Fear of abandonment
Children may worry that their caregiver will not return or that something bad will happen while they are apart. This fear often leads to anxiety when faced with separation.
Some children might experience physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, or other signs of discomfort when faced with separation.
Difficulty sleeping alone
Separation anxiety can also manifest at naptime, making it difficult for the child to sleep alone on their own mat or cot.
Children might try to avoid situations or places that involve separation from their caregiver or family members. For example, they might not want to enter their school or child care center.
How Parents or Caregivers Might Feel
It is normal for a parent or primary caregiver to feel guilty, sad, or even helpless when a child exhibits signs separation anxiety. Remember that separation anxiety is considered a normal part of development and reflects the child’s growing attachment to their familiar adult. It indicates that the child has formed a strong emotional bond with their primary caregiver and is learning to understand the concept of object permanence (the idea that objects and people continue to exist even when they are out of sight). As the child grows and develops a sense of security, the intensity of separation anxiety typically diminishes.
It is also natural for an adult who has spent nearly all of a child’s life caring for them to feel separation anxiety themself. However, adults tend to have more developed coping skills and are less likely to throw temper tantrums during drop-off, as much as they might want to! Be kind and positive with families during this difficult transition.
Tips for Easing Separation Anxiety at Child Care and School
Helping both adults and children deal with separation anxiety during the early childhood years requires patience, understanding, and a gradual approach. Here are some strategies for leaders, teachers, parents and caregivers to help everyone feel secure and minimize each child’s anxiety.
Tips for Administrators, Teachers, and Child Care Providers
Be Proactive: Include information, such as handouts, articles, or tip sheets, on separation and attachment in your welcome kit or intake paperwork for families.
Be Present: Support families, children, and staff with difficult transitions. Show you care by helping out and providing an extra hand to hold or kind word.
Be Patient: Understand that separation anxiety is a temporary phase and that it’s important to be patient and empathetic toward staff and families during this time.
Tips for Supporting Children
Visit the Program: If possible, have children visit the program with a family member before the first day. Familiarity with the environment can ease anxiety.
Positive Talk: Use positive language when discussing school. Highlight the fun activities, new friends, and interesting things the child will experience.
Transitional Object: Allow the child to bring a small object from home to keep with them at school. This can provide comfort and a sense of familiarity.
Visual Schedule: Create a visual schedule that shows the routine of the day. This can help a child understand what’s coming next and feel more in control.
Encourage Independence: Help the child build independence by practicing skills like putting on shoes, zipping up a backpack, and using the restroom.
Reassurance: Let the child know that you understand their feelings and that it’s okay to feel nervous, sad, or scared. Name the emotions and reassure them that their caregiver will be back to pick them up.
For Parents and Guardians
Prepare and Plan Ahead: Talk to your child about what to expect. Describe the routine, teachers, and activities in a positive way. This helps create a mental picture for your child.
Stay Calm: Children often pick up on the emotions of adults. If you’re anxious or upset, your child may become more anxious as well. Stay positive, cheerful, and calm when discussing preschool or child care.
Set a Gradual Transition: Ease your child into their new routine by starting with shorter periods and gradually extending them. This could mean spending the first few days together at school and then gradually reducing the time you stay.
Goodbye Rituals: Develop a simple, consistent goodbye ritual. This could be a special handshake, a hug, or a saying that you share every time you leave. It helps your child anticipate and understand that you’ll return.
Consistency: Once you’ve established a routine, stick to it. Consistency provides a sense of security and predictability for your child.
Engage in Playdates: Arrange playdates with other children who attend the same early childhood program. This can help your child establish connections and look forward to seeing friends at school.
Stay Informed: Keep communication open with your early childhood program’s staff. Request updates and schedule check-ins to discuss how the child is doing and what you can do to support them.
Remember, separation anxiety is a normal part of a child’s development. It’s a sign of a strong bond between a child and their guardian. With patience, consistency, and empathy, both caregivers and children can navigate this phase successfully. Communication and consistency are key to helping a child feel safer, more comfortable, and more confident.
For more on how to support children, families, and staff, subscribe to our newsletter and visit The Discovery Source Blog. You can also check out our resources and materials for social-emotional learning and development in our online catalog.
(If a child has intense separation anxiety that persists beyond a few weeks and/or the child’s symptoms significantly interfere with their daily functioning, it may be beneficial to support parents in seeking guidance from their pediatrician or mental health professional.)