Not all kids will experience separation anxiety but many kids will have that intense emotional response when the time comes to say goodbye to parents or caregivers. For those kids that experience separation anxiety it is a normal response that is part of their social and emotional development. As kids learn the skills to be independent at childcare, they build resiliency and confidence. But, knowing this doesn’t always help us when it comes to those fearful drop offs where we feel helpless and conflicted about saying goodbye.
Remember that it is a big transition going to childcare and developing a new routine will take time, there are bound to be bumps along the way! But, there are ways to help you and your child ease into that separation with at least a little less anxiety. Here you’ll find tips and suggestions to help you support your child as they navigate those first few weeks in a new childcare setting.
Practice and Play It Out
A great way to prepare for childcare is to simply practice being apart. You can start by giving your child the opportunity to play in a separate room in your house while you are close by, and work your way up to short visits with relatives or friends. This will introduce them to the idea that sometimes you leave, and will help build that sense of security in knowing you will alway come back to pick them up.
Another important way to practice is to set up a time to visit your childcare centre at least once before your first day. Give your child the opportunity to become familiar with the space and teachers while you are there so they know it is a fun and safe place to be.
Learning through play is another great tool to help you teach your child about what it will be like to go to childcare. You can roll play how the day will go either using toys or puppets or by acting it out. Remember to keep it simple and focus on the fact that you will see each other again at the end of the day.
The goal with practicing and roll playing is to allow your child to feel what it will be like to leave you in a less intense way than they might otherwise experience. You’re trying to build up their confidence in ways that make them feel safe and secure, and that sense of security will help to hold them up when they are navigating the world without you.
Fill Them Up, Build Them Up
Now, we’re not just talking about giving them a nutritious breakfast and dressing them warmly for the day (although those are great things to do!). We’re talking about filling them up with connection and building up their confidence in the morning before you leave.
Take a little time to snuggle or read a book with your child to create that loving connection before the busy day takes over. Giving them tasks you know they are good at, and then reminding them how great they are at that task. Invite them to get dressed by themselves or put their lunch into their backpack and then give them praise for that accomplishment. Use the time on the drive to remind your child of their accomplishments and all the things they can do really well. You might remind them that they are really good at running or drawing, it does’t have to be complicated as long as they feel good about themselves. Again you’re fostering that sense of security, independence, and confidence.
Check In With Your Own Feelings
Sometimes we have just as much separation anxiety about childcare as our kids do! And, sometime we can unknowingly contribute to our child’s anxiety because we are anxious and unsure ourselves. So it’s a good idea to check in with how you may be feeling about separating from your child. It is no small thing to starting childcare, so give yourself some time to think about how your emotional reaction at drop-off time might be playing into your child’s reaction. This is not an easy task, but sometimes just being aware of how you feel can make a big difference. We can’t expect our kids to be confident and secure if we don’t show them what that looks like. So try your best to come to terms with your own feeling so you can be your child’s example of the emotions you want to build in them.
Build A Goodbye Tradition
Changing or starting a new routine can be difficult for young children who thrive on predictability. Going to childcare can feel like a big unknown that is out of your child’s control. Building and sticking to a solid routine on “school” days is a good way to give your child a secure structure to hold them up when they experience big emotions like separation anxiety.
Of course routines take time and repetition to really give children a sense of comfort. Starting with a simple tradition that you do every time you say goodbye can be a great way to start building a routine. You can give your child a big kiss on the cheek and tell them it will stay there all day, or maybe you talk about your hearts being connected by an invisible string, or you have to hug three times before you say goodbye. It can be anything that has meaning for you and your child. Remember to keep it short and stick with it even when they are upset so that they can start to count on it.
Drop Off With Calm, Loving Confidence
All of this preparation is well and good, but when the moment comes to drop off your child and they are crying and holding on to you it can be very difficult to leave. Your child may be so upset that they are not able to hear reason in the words you speak. So rely on your own emotional presence and body language to bring them calm, loving comfort. Give them your full attention as you say goodbye and be loving and kind. Stick to the plan you have talked about with your child and follow through. Often a quick goodbye is best because it allows your child to move through the transition without emotions getting progressively more heightened. If your child is upset and does not want to let go of you connect with your child’s teacher and hand your child to them directly. You may need to wait until the teacher is available, but it’s important for your child to know there is an adult there to support them.
You may hear that your child was just fine after you left and had a great day. This is because your child’s anxiety is not necessarily about being at childcare, but about saying goodbye to you, so keep it short, loving, and stay consistent. If you find that your child is not progressively adjusting over the first month talk to your child care provider, they are there to help find the best strategies for you and your child.
Staying connected comes in two different ways; building a connection with your child’s teachers, and having something that connects you and your child through the day.
Your childcare provider is your best resource as you transition your child into care. Have a quick chat at drop off to let them know how your child is doing or give them some insight into things your child is really into that day. This information can be helpful in providing comfort after you leave. If you have concerns it’s best to talk to teachers at a time when your child is not around so you can give your full attention.
Staying connected with your child throughout the day can be as simple as reminding them that your hands made their lunch and that you put extra love into their sandwich. You can send them with a special stuffy or blanket so they feel safe at nap time or put a special note in their lunch box. You can also have a special activity that you do together at the end of the day even if it’s just snuggling on the couch. Whatever it is build on the special connection you share with your child so they can feel secure even when you’re apart.
Navigating separation anxiety is a difficult process, but it won’t last forever and it’s all part of your child’s learning journey. At childcare they are learning to be their own person amongst their peers in a space that offers new skills and new relationships, and its bound to be a bumpy road sometimes. But, if you find that your child is not settling into a routine and it just doesn’t feel right its best to have a good conversation with your child’s teachers. Together you can come up with a plan to support your child in the best way possible. Remember that its all about confidence, love, and kindness, and that you are doing a great job!
How to Ease Your Child's Separation Anxiety - Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE, FAAP
Ease Your Preschooler's Separation Anxiety | Parenting Tips - Pathways.org
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