Separation Anxiety in Young Children

30490154_sIt’s a feeling I will never forget…leaving my 6 month old at daycare for the first time! I expected that she would have some difficulty with my leaving her ( and vice versa!) but I didn’t anticipate it to go on as long as it did! Three months later and we were both in tears at drop off daily (yeah….I’m the young children’s mental health therapist with the skills all right there neatly in my back pocket.  Of anybody, shouldn’t I be able to help my child manage her separation anxiety?  Sheesh!)  I finally gave into my pride and spoke to my daughter’s daycare provider about how difficult drop offs had become for both my daughter AND myself. I wish I had reached out to her sooner! A little communication, a little readjustment of where I placed her down when I dropped her off in the morning and we had a whole heck of a lot more success!

All children typically go through a “normal, age appropriate” stage of separation anxiety. When it becomes recurrent and excessive distress at the thought of separation from a loved one, crippling to the point of not wanting to leave the house, constant worries that harm could come to a loved one and/or repeated nightmares with a theme of being separated from someone, or persistent somatic complaints such as headaches, stomachaches, nausea, vomiting when separation from an attachment figure occurs or is anticipated these can be indicators that you should seek professional help for your child.

How do we help children who feel separation anxiety?

What about the kids who don’t necessarily need clinical intervention but still need some help in managing some mild to moderate separation anxiety? Below are some tips and strategies for you to try:

  • ALWAYS say goodbye. Don’t sneak out on your child no matter how tempting it may be. By saying goodbye to your child, you are letting them know that you can be trusted while strengthening their independence and your relationship.
  • Allow your child to keep a laminated picture of you or the family in their cubby that they can look at when they are missing you.
  • Communicate with your daycare providers and teachers. Sometimes just bringing awareness to the difficulty your child (fess up….YOU!) are having can allow brainstorming of ideas to take shape.
  • Include your child in the solution if they are old enough! “Sally, we are having such a tough time saying goodbye every morning. I wonder what you and I can do to help us not feel so sad about saying goodbye?” When a child feels a part of the solution, they are more likely to buy into the plan.
  • Provide your child with something of yours that they know may be special to you (albeit not very valuable!)  and ask them to take care of it for you until you come back to get them later that day.
  • Make pick up time your priority. If you tell your child you will be there to get them by 4:00, be sure you are there by 4:00! I have found with my own child that knowing the routine of the class well works too and allows for a little wiggle room if I run into traffic. I’ll tell her I will be there between snack time and afternoon circle time which gives me about a 30 minute window while still keeping my word.
  • Come up with a “good bye ritual”. Catchy phrases such as “See you later, Alligator” or “To-da-loo Kangaroo” are fun and engaging ways to say bye to your child.
  • Read stories and books. A wonderful book for toddlers is “Bye Bye Time” by Elizabeth Verdick.  For children going off to PreK or Kindergarten for the first time “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn is excellent. You can even make your own “kissing hand” with your child. You can also trace your hands together for your child to put in their cubby or desk so that when they are missing you, they can put their hand on the tracing to feel closer to you!

What about when parents feel separation anxiety?

  • Keep yourself busy! Find something to do while your child is gone.
  • Reach out to other parents in similar circumstances. Bond over coffee at the awesomeness of your children growing up and becoming more independent!
  • Don’t linger! Bring your child in, say goodbye and move on your way. By staying around you are not only making it more difficult for your child but for yourself as well!
  • Be aware of your own anxiety around saying goodbye! Your child is in tune with your emotions -don’t kid yourself for a moment that the brave front and cheerful façade you put on is fooling them! Even though I wasn’t anxious  over leaving my daughter I became increasingly anxious over HER distress at me leaving and she could feel the anticipatory anxiety I was experiencing.
  • TALK TO THE STAFF- no, this is not a typo…yes, I said this up above. It’s that important. If you don’t let someone know, they don’t know how to help.  Sometimes just saying “This is really hard for me too, do you have any ideas on how to make the mornings easier?” will bring out the empathy and compassion in a provider who may have otherwise been going through the motions of dealing with a child who was “difficult” at drop off every day. It’s also a great opportunity to model for your child how to express your feelings and ask for help! Communication is KEY!
  • Anticipate some set backs. You may get in a goodbye groove for a bit only to be sidelined by a regression after a vacation or holiday.  You may also see a spike in daycare settings as children age out of one class into another.

Finally, my favorite piece of advice- just take a deep breath! Remember, you’re helping your child to develop skills of independence and the ability to navigate in this great big world! How awesome it will be to see them master something that was once so scary to them!

Katerie Breuer, MSW, LCSW, LISW-CPIMG_0259.PNG

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