ConnectABILITY

Separation Anxiety in Children

It is natural for children to experience anxiety when introduced to new places and people that may disrupt a child’s normal routines and activities, like going to an early learning program, making friends or sleeping.

Starting in a new program can be an emotional experience for both parent and child. Some resistance or distress are common during the adjustment period. Careful planning and collaboration can help with the transition between the home and program. 

Any indication of a child experiencing anxiety requires a supportive and empathetic response to help them manage worries and learn a variety of coping skills.

Tips for Parents

  • Understand your own response to the change, what are you modeling?
  • Be enthusiastic about the upcoming change. Being an excited and confident parent will make you a good role model.
  • Prepare yourself. Take note of how your child reacts to separation. 
  • If possible, visit the new setting with your child or explore options of connecting virtually with the program.
  • Start daily routines that will help with the transition in advance. Have your child help with packing their backpack or selecting clothing. It may also be helpful to adjust bedtime and wake-up routines several weeks before the transition.
  • Include family and cultural practices throughout the day, ones that will help your child find a way to ground themselves within their identity.
  • Explain when and where you will be picking up your child. For example, you might say to your child “After lunch and sleep, I will come to get you. You will probably be playing outside then. I will know where to find you.” A common fear is that you will not return or that you will not find each other. If another family member or caregiver will be picking up the child be sure to let them know.
  • Try using a visual schedule, showing pictures of the daily routine and a step-by-step mini-schedule of the program entry routine. This will help your child understand what is happening and what to expect.
  • Always say goodbye to your child regardless of how tempting it may seem to leave while your child is distracted. This may increase their anxiety and cause them to cling to you more on future occasions. It is equally important not to prolong the goodbye as it will cause you both to have unnecessary stress.
  • Use tools such as calendars, books or personalized stories to help your child understand the change.

Tips for the Program

  • Allow space and permission to express emotions without shame and offer comfort and reassurance quickly when a child is distressed.
  • Share a video with families online, if permissible, that demonstrates the program’s fun toys and activities. This will help the child have a visual reference to the program and develop familiarity. Include special messages of welcome.
  • Warmly welcome each child and family as they come to the program. Greet them by name, let them know you’re glad to see them and ask how they are doing.
  • Show the child around the program and introduce them to the other children and adults.
  • Get to know the child and family as quickly as possible. Parents can provide information about their children’s likes, dislikes and interests and can give valuable insight into considerations around culture and identity. Be open to suggestions from families. Parents can offer specific suggestions and strategies they have found useful for their own child. Remember, a parent knows their child best.
  • Develop a goodbye ritual with the family. Rituals are reassuring, especially during stressful times. Help the parent plan a special way to say goodbye, such as a wave through the window or a hug.
  • Reassure children about their safety and the safety of loved ones.  For some parents who might have their own anxieties about keeping their children “safe”, it is crucial to reinforce that measures are in place to protect children.  
  • Offer a favourite toy, activity or ‘helper’ role once the parent has said goodbye to help redirect the child’s attention. Remain engaged in that activity with the child.
  • Use a visual schedule, showing pictures of the daily routine and a step-by-step mini-schedule of the program entry routine.
  • Make sure activities are developmentally appropriate. Interesting and engaging activities will help a child feel comfortable in their new setting.

Remember

It is not uncommon for your child to show delayed separation anxiety even after the initial transitions have gone smoothly.  Your child will eventually resettle back into the routine with your support and reassurance.

Children, like adults, need time to adjust to new people, situations and experiences. Thoughtful and supportive responses on the part of the adults in a child’s life can help them learn how to approach fears and manage their anxiety.

Helping your child respond positively to a new environment supports healthy emotional development. Remember that all children are unique and have different ways of managing. What is tolerable to us may not be for your child. It’s important to understand the cause of the anxiety and the ways to support them. Caregivers, family members and early learning educators share a role in helping children feel safe and secure.

Sometimes, it may be more than separation anxiety. Consider other possible sources of stress in the child’s life. If your child continues to be inconsolable in a new program, stops eating or sleeping well, refuses to interact with others, and/or has an ongoing change in mood you may want to discuss these concerns and consider seeking help from your child’s doctor.

Glossary

Anxiety – is a state of being uneasy, apprehensive or worried about what may happen, or a concern about a possible future event.

Separation Anxiety – when a child is anxious about being away from their parent or primary caregiver. Infants can have this as early as 7 months, but separation anxiety usually peaks between a year and 18 months.

Stress – the physiological reaction of the body to life situations that can be either happy or unhappy.

Children’s Literature

Appelt, K., (2000). Oh My Baby, Little One, Harcourt, Inc.
Dewdney, A., (2009). Llama Llama Misses Mama, Viking Books for Young Readers
Henkes, K., (2000). Wemberly Worried, Willowgreen Books
Karst, E., (2000). The Invisible String, Devross & Company Publishers
Krouse Rosenthal, A., (2016). That’s Me Loving You, Random House Children’s Books
Penn, A., (1993). The Kissing Hand, Tanglewood Press 
Rusackas, F., (2003).  I Love You All Day Long, Harper Collins
Spinelli, E., (1998). When Mama Come Home Tonight, Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers
Verdick, E., (2008). Bye-bye Time, Free Spirit Publishing
Waddell, M., (2015). Owl Babies, Candlewick Press

References

Beidel, D. C., & Turner, S.M. (2005). Childhood anxiety disorders: A guide and treatment. New York: Routledge.

Chaos & Quiet. (n.d.). 11 Children’s Books to Ease Your Child’s Separation Anxiety.  Retrieved from https://chaosandquiet.com/childrens-books-separation-anxiety/.

Cooper, H. (2020, March 05). Helping Children and Teens Cope with Anxiety About COVID-19. Retrieved June 11, 2020, from https://pulse.seattlechildrens.org/helping-children-and-teens-cope-with-anxiety-covid-19/

Dyme Bartlett, J., Griffin, J., & Thomson, D. (2020, March 19). Resources for Supporting Children’s Emotional Well-being during COVID-19 Pandemic. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://www.childtrends.org/publications/resources-for-supporting-childrens-emotional-well-being-during-the-covid-19-pandemic

Hurley, K. (2018). Helping Kids with Anxiety: Strategies to Help Anxious Children. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://www.psycom.net/help-kids-with-anxiety

Illinois Early Learning Project, (2005).  Please don’t go: Separation Anxiety and Children. Retrieved June 11, 2020 from https://illinoisearlylearning.org/tipsheets/sepanxiety/

Mount Pleasant Family Centre Society. (2020, April 22). Early Childhood Development in a Time of Pandemic. Retrieved June 11, 2020, from https://www.mpfamilycentre.ca/item/264-early-childhood-development-in-a-time-of-pandemic


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