Separation Anxiety

17 Aug 2018
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Tips for managing separation anxiety in children

Temper tantrums, hysterical tears, dramatic clinging. Separation anxiety might not be the most charming aspect of your toddler’s development. But it’s actually a completely normal part of childhood. In fact, it’s a good thing, as you’ll soon learn. Of course, not everything that’s good for you is fun (dentist appointments, anyone?). So we’ve written this post to help you spot the symptoms and develop some strategies for managing your toddler’s separation anxiety.

What Is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety 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.

It doesn’t take long for babies to learn that you’re their caregiver. They rely on you to be fed, clothed, sheltered, and loved.

When babies become more aware of their separate selves, they discover that you can 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 is the anxiety and fear your child feels when being separated from you. In essence, it’s simply your toddler’s attempt to cling to security in a world that is still very new 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. It usually settles down as your child grows older and more confident.

Separation Anxiety Symptoms

While some children worry more than others, separation anxiety is entirely normal and nothing to worry about. 
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.

Tips for Managing Separation Anxiety in Toddlers

It’s never easy leaving your child when they are upset, but it can help to remind yourself that separation anxiety is normal during early childhood. 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.

Some children are fine until they experience a longer absence from their Educators - because of school holidays, illness, the birth of a sibling, a family vacation, or something entirely different.

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 child care or one of our early learning campuses.

Tips for Managing Separation Anxiety in Child Care or at Only About Children

  1. Prepare your child

Visit the Oac campus with your child before they start. Families are encouraged to visit the campus for numerous orientation visits to get to know the Educators, the Oac Way, and the environment.

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 campus, reassure them you’ll be back, and talk about what you can do when you see each other again.

  1. Work Together with Your Child’s Educator

At Only About Children, our Educators will discuss strategies with you to ease the transition into the campus.

To begin with, our Educators will share information with you about your child’s day. But it also helps to keep the educators informed about what’s happening with you and your child.

  1. 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 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.

  1. 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.

Start playing a game with them or doing an activity that your child likes before leaving. As we suggest below, build a regular routine around drop-off and pick-up so your child feels secure and can predict when you’ll come back.

  1. 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.

What makes your child most comfortable in new situations? Use this information to establish a written arrival plan.

At our campuses, 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.

A younger baby will probably be content to help put away their things and then be handed to their caregiver.

Once you have completed your morning routine and you’re ready to leave, let one of the Teachers know so they can help you and your child say goodbye.

Your child’s Educators will work to support both you and your child in the ongoing process of saying goodbye. Please don’t hesitate to call at any time throughout the day for feedback from the Educators on how your child has settled in throughout the morning.

  1. 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.

You might already be familiar with how these emotions can manifest as tantrums, refusal to cooperate, or indifference to parents.

Parents often feel confused by their child’s behaviour, especially if they expected the child to race into their arms flushed with the day’s fun and happiness to see them. This can be a difficult time of day.

When you pick up your child, spend extra time with them to reconnect again. Bring a favourite toy or a photo from home to help give your child a feeling of security and familiarity.

Find a quiet time to discuss with your child what you saw and did, and what was familiar or different from your home setting.

Ask specific questions about what they did, such as what toy they played with or what they had for morning tea.

  1. 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.

If your child doesn’t seem to be settling down over a period of a few weeks or seems to be regressing in some ways, don’t panic.

Talk to our Educators, who will be able to give you insight into your child’s experience and how they are responding to the new environment and may suggest additional strategies to assist your child through the transition into our care.

We’re here to support you and your child through it. While it’s a difficult phase to navigate through, the benefits for your child in the long run will outweigh this phase of anxiety.

They will develop strong social and emotional skills and connections to Educators that are necessary for their lifelong learning and social competencies.

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.

At our campuses, our Educators also understand the stress some children can feel separating from their parents.

That’s why we do what we can to help with their daily transition and provide a warm environment that helps them feel safe. Learn more about Only About Children online today.