Separation anxiety is a normal developmental phenomenon, a transitional stage each young child goes through on a journey towards independence. This experience is part of learning emotional regulation skills, as well as, an expression of healthy attachment to the caregiver.
Separation anxiety is not an anxiety disorder. There is nothing wrong with your child. Although painful to watch and to experience, it is a stage every child goes through. There are ways in which we can help him cope (and help ourselves as well), as is discussed below.
You know the drill.
You need to drop off your toddler at the daycare and run to work, but it isn’t as simple as it sounds. A meltdown is coming — you can tell. Big emotions roll in, your child begins to cry and won’t let go. Your heart is breaking. You begin to wonder, what are you doing wrong? You may even start feeling guilty for having to (or wanting to) do things other than spending time with your little one.
It is hard for any parent to walk away from their crying child. Our impulse is to run over to them, pick them up, and help them. But what to do in a situation, like drop off at daycare or preschool? You know your child is not hurt and is not in danger, and yet you can’t stop feeling bad about the situation. Let’s talk about the reasons behind a typical crying-at-drop-off scenario and how you can approach this situation, known as developmental separation anxiety.
So, why separation anxiety?
It all goes back to attachment to the caregiver figure. Having someone to take care of us when we are tiny and helpless is critical for our survival. Any big transition will create a temporary sense of an unstable situation. It fills the child with worry of losing comfort and losing their caregiver. This is where the separation anxiety takes its roots. Any transition like that, therefore, comes with the fear of change. Let’s look at the daycare or preschool experience from the child’s point of view.
One of the child’s basic needs is to feel secure and know she will be taken care of and be loved.
This is not something we can communicate to our children in words. It can only be experienced by them directly. Naturally, it will take time for the child to acquire this experience and, depending on his or her personality, this process may be longer or shorter.
One of the important developmental milestones for a healthy child is forming an attachment. Attachment is a healthy emotional connection that children create with adults who take care of them. It gives them the sense of consistency, predictability, and thus, safety. Having formed such a relationship, the child may begin to worry of losing you if other adults start taking care of him. It will take some time for your child to adjust to the new routines and to understand (at the level of experience) that you are still there for him. Until that experience is solid, he will show signs of separation anxiety.
In the long-term, healthy attachment teaches the child to form other relationships with caring people around them, and is a prerequisite for good boundaries and social skills development.
In the short term, however, the child has no understanding of the situation being temporary. With that in mind, we can appreciate that she is acting on the assumption that you will be lost forever. The only way this assumption gets corrected is through ongoing experience of separation and re-connection. No convincing words will truly matter at this point, and only the experience will correct the child’s perception and ultimately, relieve her of separation anxiety symptoms.
Every child is different and may need a number of these experiences, in order to adjust and understand the natural flow of goodbye’s and hello’s. She will be fine eventually, and this is an experience she truly needs in order to grow. She’s been there before and she’ll get through this one too. Remember how challenging it was to put your baby down for the night and walk away? That was the first time the child became aware of your significance and experienced the fear of caregiver loss for the first time. Having repeated that experience night after night, has taught your child that she will see you in the morning again. Dropping your child off at daycare or preschool is very similar to that initial experience of perceived loss.
But my child has been at daycare before…
Separation anxiety can come and go with each new transition. Especially a significant one. If your child has had a previously successful experience at daycare or preschool, but now started having emotional episodes at drop-off again, this typically happens due to other recent changes in the family.
Any significant change in the child’s life and environment can create a general sense of worry. The child may begin to fear that even more changes are coming, which makes them uncertain about their own safety.
If your child has had a previous daycare experience but is now showing signs of separation anxiety at drop-off again, reflect for a moment… What changes have recently happen at home? What kind of interruption in the typical routine has taken place? Was there a move or a renovation? Is a child sleeping in a different room or bed? Has she lost her favorite toy? Did a relative come for a long stay or was there a new addition to the family (including pets)? Perhaps there were changes in how much time various members of the family spend at home (e.g., due to employment changes, etc.).
These are only some examples of the changes that may shake the child’s sense of routine and stability. When this happens, her natural reaction is to cling to the parents and want to stay with them at all times. Even if she had previously enjoyed her time at the daycare center, the potential of losing you is at the forefront of her attention. Still, separation anxiety is something we can help the child go through together.
How you can help the situation
Now that you understand the developmental needs of your youngster, you will be better prepared to deal with separation anxiety when it arises. The most important point to keep in mind is that childcare drop-off is a perfect opportunity to help your child learn self-regulation skills. Keep this in mind while you read the do’s and dont’s below, and may it be the guiding principle of your actions at the moment of drop-off. (Read more on self-regulation.)
- Become emotional. Showing the child that you are sad too, will confirm her worries that going to preschool is a bad thing. Little children rely on our emotions for cues on how to feel.
- Lie. It is not a good idea to make promises you will not keep. Don’t trick your child by saying “I am going to the car for just a minute and I will be right back!” or “I am just going to the bathroom and I will get you right after!” This tactic will violate the sense of trust between you and your child.
- Linger around. Staying around for an indefinite period of time or waiting until the child calms down, is only going to prolong the inevitable and exhaust the child emotionally.
- Leave without a goodbye. It is not a great idea to walk away when the child is not looking or when he gets distracted by toys. This will ingrain the sense of fear that you can disappear at any time without his noticing, without a good-bye. Instead of being a temporary situation of separation anxiety, it may turn into a perpetual feeling of fear the child will have a hard time coping with.
- Manage your own emotions. Know that separation anxiety is a typical developmental milestone which will help your child grow, learn to deal with feelings, and become more independent. Children look to us to know how to feel. Remaining calm and composed will eventually communicate that all is well. If you don’t have anything to worry about, then she’ll trust the situation too.
- Create drop off routines. Short but consistent routines will make the child feel most prepared for the transition. Over time, she will be able to tell what’s coming. This predictability will give her the sense of comfort. Just like your toddler will know you have to leave at the expected time, she will also come to anticipate you coming back when it is time to go home.
- Quick transitions. Ripping the band-aid in one swift move is the best analogy here. Routines will create the necessary communication between you and the child, so she knows what’s coming. So when it is time to say good-bye, do it quickly and leave regardless of the child’s plea for more time. There will be sniffles and crying, but it will be short lived. The longer we stay, the harder the separation will be on the child (and you!).
- Increase predictability and routines. To help with this major transition, increase stability and predictability in other areas of your child’s life. In addition to the specific drop-off routines, create morning and bedtime routines. Also, plan to spend quality one-on-one time with your child soon after you pick him up from daycare.
- Work together. Collaborate with professionals at the child center. With a consistent approach from all adults involved, the child is more likely to see you as partners. Not only will she see you as a team not worth fighting against, but it will also help in forming a trusting relationship with them.