Separation Anxiety

Heather Rotolo, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Sarah Wittmann, M.S., Licensed Professional Counselor

It is typical and developmentally appropriate for children to experience stress or anxiety when separated from their parents. When children are young, their parent(s) are their secure base and it is difficult for them to understand that, when they are left in the care of a different person, their parent will return.

This is especially true if it’s the first time the parent is leaving the child for a longer period of time, such as at day care or school. Children may cry, withdraw from others, or become aggressive toward others. Children need time to adjust to new situations where they are separated from their parent. This may take some children longer than others.

Transitioning your child when she is to be separated from you

The time has come for your baby or toddler to start day care or school. Many questions may run through your head.  Take a deep breath and remember that change is hard for everyone and it is natural for you to want the very best for your child.  There are some practical approaches to making the transition as stress-free as possible for the entire family.

Prepare your day care provider/teacher

Provide information on daily routines and anything else you think the provider needs to know in order to provide your child with the best possible care (for example, how well your child copes with changes to the daily routine, what techniques work best in soothing her, and so on).

Prepare your child

Allow your child to have a transitional object, otherwise known as a comfort object. This can help ease the transition between home and day care/school. If your child has a favorite blanket or stuffed animal, she may find it comforting to have this special friend to hold if feeling lonely or scared. Your child may also choose to bring a picture of you or something that belongs to you with them. You can also develop a goodbye ritual. This could be a secret handshake with your child that’s used only when she leaves you or special words that will reassure your child about your return.

Saying goodbye

Your attempts to reassure your child that you’re leaving her in good hands will all be in vain if your body language and voice indicate to her that you’re feeling ambivalent and anxious yourself. Give your child the message that you feel thoroughly confident in her new day care/school arrangement and that you’re looking forward to finding out all about her day when you pick her up after work.

Keep your goodbyes short: Keep a smile on your face, even if your child is crying, and reassure her that you will be back again at the end of the day. Of course, you also want to validate your child’s feelings by letting her know that you understand that it’s tough to say goodbye (you’ll miss her, too!), but that you’ll be back to pick her up at the end of the day.

No disappearing act: Resist the temptation to sneak out the door the second your child looks the other way; this causes bigger problems. Now that you’ve exited once, your child may rightly conclude that you’re likely to sneak out again. This fear can lead your child to become extremely clingy — and not just at day care. This could also compromise your child’s trust in you.

Spend special time together

Being separated from one another is hard. Set aside special time in the evening for nurturing activities or discuss your child’s day if she is old enough to speak. Talk positively about her daycare/school experiences and reassure your child that you will always be there to pick her up.

What has been your best tactic for handling separation anxiety with your child?

Heather Rotolo is the Clinical Director at the Behavior Clinic at Penfield Children’s Center and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. As the administrator of the Behavior Clinic she provides supervision and support to staff and colleagues around the issues of social emotional development in young children.

Sarah Wittmann is a Licensed Professional Counselor and provides service coordination in the Birth-to-Three program at Penfield Children’s Center.  Her focus is mental health and she provides extra support to the parents and children with whom she works.

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