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Separation Anxiety for Young Children

It is natural to become anxious when we do not understand what is expected in certain situations or settings. In other words, when environmental and/or situational demands become unclear, it can generate anxiety in many of us.

All children experience some anxiety; this is normal and expected. For example, when left with caregivers at child care for the first time, many children will show distress. Dealing with changes in the daily routine can bring about anxiety in some children. Such anxiety becomes a problem when it interrupts a child’s normal activities, like attending child care or school, making friends or sleeping.

Entering into a new child care arrangement can be an emotional experience for both parent and child. However, careful planning, and the knowledge that some separation anxiety and tears are normal, can make the transition from parent to caregiver as pleasant as possible. How quickly a child adapts depends on a number of factors including: the child’s age and stage of development; past experiences in the care of others; the skills of the new caregiver and appropriateness of the new setting; and the parents’ ability to prepare themselves and the child for the separation. Here are some strategies to consider before starting child care or for children having difficulty upon arrival to the centre.

Tips for Parents:

  • Be enthusiastic about the upcoming change. Being an excited and confident parent will make a good role model.
  • Prepare yourself. Take note of how your child reacts to separation. If possible, visit the new setting with your child. Introduce your child to the new teacher or early childhood professional in advance.
  • Arrange a play date (if possible) with another child from the program, preferably one-on-one, so that your child will see a familiar face when she walks in.
  • Start daily routines that will add to continuity. Let your child become involved with packing her backpack or laying out clothes. Also, begin an earlier bedtime several weeks before.
  • Explain when and where you will be picking her up. For example you might say to your child “After lunch and sleep, I will come. 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 her know.
    • Try using a visual schedule, showing pictures of the daily routine. This will help your child understand what is happening and what to expect.
  • Always say good-bye to your child. Regardless of how tempting it may seem never sneak out while your child is distracted. This destroys trust and will encourage her to cling more on future occasions. But remember not to prolong the good-bye. If she whines or clings, staying will only make it harder.
  • Your stress level can contribute to separation anxiety. Anxiety about child care arrangements or guilt about leaving may add to your child’s distress. Make sure that you feel confident about the child care arrangements that you’ve made. And remember, some time spent apart can be good for you both.

Tips for the Classroom:

  • Make sure activities are developmentally appropriate. Interesting and challenging activities will help a child feel comfortable in her new setting.
  • Get to know the child as quickly as possible. Parents can provide information about children’s likes, dislikes, and special interests.
  • Welcome suggestions from families. Parents can offer specific suggestions they have found useful for their own child. Remember, a parent knows their child best.
  • Show the child around the child care centre and introduce her to other adults who are part of the child care program.
  • 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. You may also want to ask the parent who will be picking up the child or at what time. This information can help to reassure the child that her parent will be returning.

Sometimes, it may be more than separation anxiety. Consider other possible sources of stress in the child’s life. If a child continues to be inconsolable in a new child care or other setting for more than 2 weeks or stops eating or sleeping well, refuses to interact with others, and has an ongoing change in behaviour you will want to discuss the concern with the child’s family and consider seeking help from a professional.

Remember:

Children, just like adults, need time to adjust to new people and situations. Experience can make transition a bit easier, but even with experience, change can still be stressful. Patience and understanding on the part of parents and caregivers will help children learn how to approach new situations with confidence – a skill that will help them make successful transitions throughout life.

Glossary:

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

Phobia – an uncontrollable, irrational, and persistent fear of a specific object, situation, or activity.

Separation Anxiety – when an infant or toddler is anxious about being away from her 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 both happy and unhappy.

References:

  • Illinois Early Learning Project. Please don’t go: Separation Anxiety and Children. Tip sheet available at www.illinoisearlylearning.org/
  • Child and Family Canada. Coping with Separation Anxiety. Resource Sheet #41. Available at www.cfc-efc.ca
  • Beidel, Deborah C. (2005). Childhood anxiety disorders: A guide and treatment. Routledge.
  • The Groden Centre – www.grodencentre.org

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