Many toddlers begin preschool or nursery in the next few weeks. Starting school is a new experience and can be overwhelming for a few. Given that many schools will be reopening for the first time since the pandemic, many children may also find it challenging to be away from their parents. This can be especially difficult for children who have spent most of their time with their parents working from home or being constantly around.
It is natural for young children to feel a little anxiety when separated from their parents, be it when parents leave for work or when being dropped off at school. Typical separation anxiety can begin when babies are a few months old and continue up to the age of 4. Visible signs can be crying, tantrums, clinginess and slight anxiety. This happens because babies and toddlers are still learning that the separation is temporary. The range of separation anxiety can also vary from mild anxiety to full-blown hysterical panic.
A little worry and anxiety about being away from parents are normal and with the right strategies and practice, parents can help their child overcome their separation anxiety. However, some children experience anxiety beyond the expected age and at a much higher intensity. When anxiety is excessive and interferes with schooling and other activities, it may be indicative of a larger problem which is termed “separation anxiety disorder”. In today’s blog, we talk about what parents can do to help children overcome typical separation anxiety, which may be evident especially as children return to or start school.
Separation anxiety can be as difficult on the parents as it is on their children. It is difficult to leave your child and go to work or drop them off at school, when they cling to you, sobbing and begging you to stay or worse if you can hear them bawling out as you walk away. Reassurances of caretakers or teachers, telling you that your child will settle down in a few minutes may not offer much comfort. Here are a few tips to help your child overcome typical separation anxiety.
Before you get back to work or drop off your child at playschool, practice brief periods of separation with your child. Leave them with a caregiver for a short time, when you know you can go back when needed. This will help your child understand that you will return after a short time. As your child gets used to separation, you can gradually leave them for longer periods.
If you make your goodbyes long and elaborate or make a big deal of it, your child will give it that much more importance. Keep your goodbyes brief, with a kiss and a quick hug maybe. Keep it casual. Tell your child that you are stepping out and/or that you’ll be back and leave. Refrain from giving elaborate explanations or reassurances. Most of all, even if you are feeling anxious about it, keep it positive for your child.
Younger children tend to feel more anxiety when they are tired, sleepy or hungry. So schedule your practice separations when it’s their best time of day. After they’ve been fed or are up and about for play can be a good time to start.
When you practice separation, first leave your child with a caregiver in your home, instead of leaving your child in a new surrounding. Your child will feel more at ease in a familiar place. Introduce the caregiver gradually and arrange for a meeting or two for all 3 of you to spend together. This way the new caregiver is a familiar face and not a stranger. Stick to the same caregiver as much as possible. Introducing a new nanny or caretaker every few days will make your child more anxious. Next, you can move to leave them away from home with a caregiver. Ease the anxiety by giving them a favourite toy or comforting object to take along.
If your child is watching shows or cartoons that make them anxious, this is likely to seep into their separation anxiety. Monitor what they watch and keep it light-hearted and pleasant.
It will be difficult to walk away when your child is upset and howling, but giving in and turning back will only make it more difficult for your child to adjust to separation. Leave your child with a trusted caregiver so are confident they can manage your child and allow them to get used to staying for small periods of time without you. Try your best not to give in.
Letting your child know that you’ll be back and will spend time together, helps them understand that you will return and gives them something to look forward to, instead of worrying that they won’t see you again. Explain to your child when you’ll return, defining time in a way they understand, “ after snack-time, before bedtime”. Follow up on promises by returning on time and spending time doing the activity you discussed. It can be something as simple as reading a book together or getting them ready for bed.
Routines help children understand what to expect from their day and give them a sense of security and safety. Being consistent to a large extent with their mealtimes and bedtimes can help them transition better between activities. If your child is old enough to understand, inform them in advance of any change in their routine. It’s easier to adapt to change when it is expected rather than as a not so pleasant surprise.
Separation anxiety can be difficult on you as a parent as it is for your child but with a little practice, consistency and support, you can ease your child’s separation anxiety. If your child is constantly worried, anxious or overwhelmed and doesn’t show any signs of adjusting to separation, get in touch with a therapist who can help you and your child deal with separation anxiety.