Separation Anxiety in Preschool Children – No More Tears For Children When Parents Leave

Separation Anxiety is very common and almost all children will experience some degree of it some time in their life. If you are reading this article then it’s highly possible that separation anxiety is not just a passing few tears, but you are seeking to find a solution to ongoing distress, either in your child or as a carer of a child.

It is important to realize that just as each child’s experience of separation anxiety from their primary caregiver is different, so might the strategies we use to support them differ. The following ideas are suggestions I have found helpful over many years in child care and as a parent. Adapt them to each child’s situation or use them to spark your thinking of other strategies.

1. Always Have The Child And Parent Say Goodbye
It is amazing how many parents prefer to make an unseen “get away” while their child is momentarily occupied. I have found that while the parent may feel better for not witnessing their child cry, this actually adds to the child’s anxiety in future separations as they are unsure when mum or dad might disappear while they are not looking. It fuels the anticipation of their caregiver leaving and children of speaking age have actually said to me “Where did mummy go? Will she come back?”.

It’s important for parents to take the time to say goodbye to their child, tell them how much they love them, tell them where they are going and how long they will be. Even if this makes the child upset initially, it adds to TRUST. This action may need to be repeated as a ritual for many days / weeks, but the overall time that separation anxiety exists in the child will lessen quickly in most children. The more the parent is trustworthy, usually the faster the child feels secure that the parent will return when they say.

2. Prepare The Child For Separation
This does not mean morbidly repeating that the child and parent will be separated. However, referring periodically to the time of separation prepares the child and allows some time for adjustment. For example, Lucy (2 ½ yrs) was going to stay for a weekend with her grandparents while her mum and dad had their first weekend away. In the week leading up, her mum referred 3-4 times to the weekend saying “you’re going to have 2 night time sleeps at Nan’s. Won’t that be fun! You can take your pyjamas and pillow” Creating excitement about the event helps fearful anticipation to become excited anticipation.

If children regularly attend child care and are experiencing ongoing separation anxiety, you could have a weekly routine chart using photos that show the child which days they attend child care. On waking, for example, the parent can show the child Monday’s photo is day care, but the next day is a photo of a day at home with Dad. The alternative is to suddenly surprise them in the car on the way to the care environment, but my experience is that in the long term the anxiety continues for longer. Children need predictability and routine to develop trust, which again supports them to feel secure and less anxious.

3. Leave The Child For Short Periods and Gradually Lengthen The Time
Children usually need to know and trust people in order to feel secure in their care. Try leaving them for an hour or two and gradually lengthen the time as the child feels more secure. This includes formal child care. Parents should try to work in partnership with centre and with their own work commitments. This may even mean taking the day off work for the first day the child is in care. The parents will probably be more relaxed, and are easily available to collect the child after a few hours.

4. Spend Time Allowing The Child To Know And Feel Secure With The Carer In The Presence Of The Parent / Primary Caregiver
Plan ahead and visit the child carer, or spend 1-2 hours at formal child care with the child. The primary carergiver should remain with the child for the duration, allowing the child to explore and get to know the person and surroundings.

5. Leave Something Special With The Child That Belongs To The Parent / Primary Caregiver
It is important to emphasize that this should not be something of monetary or sentimental value that. if broken or lost, is irreplaceable. Allow the child to have a photo of Dad / Mum, Mum’s scarf, Dad’s t-shirt, or anything of significance that ties the parent to the child and can bring them comfort.

6. Allow The Child To Have A Familiar Object Or Toy Of Their Own
A teddy, blanket, doll or other security toy that can bring comfort. Again, this should not be of great monetary or sentimental value.

7. Help The Child To Understand That Mum / Dad Will Return.
This may be simple, but often overlooked. It may simply be a reminder that “Daddy / Mummy will be back soon”. I remember in one of my first child care positions many of the children spoke a language other than English, and the first phrase I learnt in that language was “Mum’s coming back soon”. I still remember the phrase some 10 years later! Older children can benefit from visual timetables which depict, in photo or picture form, what happens in the day and when in the day Mum / Dad come back. Even older children can begin to use clocks and more formal time measures.

8. Have A Special Ritual Which The Parent And Child Do Together When They Are Reunited
In formal child care, this may be an activity the child and parent do together at the centre, or it may be special time they have at home such as reading time or a trip to the park. This helps the child to look forward to the days of separation because at the end is a special treat.

9. Encourage The Carer To Be A Familiar Part Of The Family
Where appropriate, a photo of the carer or care environment in the home (eg on the fridge) allows the child to see the person in a familiar place. Older children may talk about the carer, helping to build trust and familiarity.

10. Help The Parent / Primary Carer Through the Separation Process
The more the parent feels comfortable in the separation process, the more they can help the child. Often separation anxiety is a heartbreaking emotion to watch, but may be momentary. The number of times I have witnessed children happily playing before the parent has reached their car is astounding. However, the last image the parent has is their child in distress. Where possible and appropriate, use a video camera to capture the child happily engaged in play. It is not always enough to say to the parent “they are fine when you leave”. Some parents need proof. If video is not available, try using a still camera. The more relaxed the parent is, the more the child senses this and their anxiety diminishes.

Cassandra writes for Onsite Early Childhood Training and you can find more information on Separation Anxiety in Childcare and Childcare Staff Training