Tips for managing separation anxiety in children when starting childcare. 

Temper tantrums, hysterical tears, dramatic clinging. Separation anxiety might not be the most charming aspect of your toddler’s development but it is your child’s way of expressing how much they don’t want to say goodbye. Although it may not seem like it when you are dealing with an upset child, separation anxiety is also a good thing. Your child’s unwillingness to leave you is a great sign that the two of you have developed healthy attachments.

When babies become more aware of their separate selves, they discover that you can actually leave them. And they can start to worry about being away from you. Your presence helps them feel safe in a world that is still largely foreign to them. 

Separation anxiety normally starts around 7 to 8 months of age. Although it generally peaks at 14 to 18 months old, it can last until 2.5 to 4 years old. But it usually settles down as your child grows older and more confident.

The symptoms of separation anxiety in toddlers can appear in any number of ways, including your child:

• Crying, screaming, whimpering, or frowning

• Becoming more clingy

• Losing interest in people or play time

• Playing with the same toy over and over again

• Waking and crying during the night more than usual

• Waking up early and not falling asleep again unless you’re there

• Crying when left with someone else.

It is never easy leaving your child when they are upset, especially beginning childcare, teary scenes actually help your child bond with their new educators, and develop their own coping skills, resilience and independence in a safe and supportive environment.

Each child reacts to separation anxiety differently. Even their reactions can vary from one day to the next. Some children don’t show any anxiety in the first weeks of child care. It only begins to appear when the novelty of the situation has worn off. Others save their meltdowns till after pickup time (lucky you!). This is because your return reminds your child of how they felt when you left.

There isn’t a magic formula or ‘one size fits all’ approach to ease separation anxiety, but we do have a few tips that may help you and your child deal with it when they’re starting at childcare.

1. Prepare your child

Visit your childcare with your child before they start. Where possible, keep the first few days short and then build up the hours over time. Talk to your child about what will happen when they go to the centre, reassure them you’ll be back, and talk about what you can do when you see each other again.

2. Work together with your child’s educator

Discuss with your Educators on strategies that will help ease the transition into child care. It’s important to share information with them so they know what’s happening with you and your child and vice versa what they have planned for the day.

3. Build trust

Make sure you say goodbye to your child and let them know when you’ll be back. Try to keep the goodbye short, as lengthy goodbyes can actually make children more upset. Don’t ignore your child’s distress – respond and comfort them. The important thing is to find a balance between supporting your child and giving them the chance to gain experience managing how they feel.

4. Build feelings of safety

Try and be as calm as possible. If you’re calm, your child will feel more secure. Reassure them that it’s OK to miss you or feel sad, and that they will be fine. But don’t dwell on these feelings.

5. Establish a regular goodbye routine

Routines add a comforting predictability to your child’s day because they’ll know what happens next. In the long run a predictable routine can lessen the anxiety of daily separations. Some parents choose to read a book or engage in a single activity with their child each morning and then have a consistent spot for saying goodbye. 

6. Take the time and effort to reconnect

An adjustment that parents frequently overlook is pick-up time. Your child must now transition from the campus back to your care. Children often greet their parents with confused emotions: a mingling of happiness to see you, anger that you left in the first place, and a desire to stay longer.

When you pick up your child, spend extra time with them to reconnect again. Find a quiet time to discuss with your child what they saw and did, and what was familiar or different from your home setting.

7. Pay attention to your own feelings

Be aware of your emotions, such as apprehension, guilt, or ambivalence. Remember that your child looks to you for the reassurance that they are safe and that you are confident about their ability to adjust to a new environment.

Finally, it might be helpful to keep in mind that adults also experience distress when separated from significant others, although we don’t usually find it as overwhelming as children do.

Think of the last time you said goodbye to a loved one at the airport, knowing there was going to be a long separation ahead. Those feelings of sadness are similar to what your child feels, except they don’t yet understand when you’ll be returning.

By Jenny Kable – Early Childhood Educator and Curriculum Manager,
Only About Children Early Learning & Kindergarten.