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How to Help Young Children with Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety has always been one of the most common challenges faced by young children. As result of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the effect it had on our day-to-day social interactions, this overwhelming fear of separation from their main carer and feeling of distress around strangers have become even worse for many babies and toddlers.

If your child fits the above description, don’t despair. We’ve got your back! Here are some key strategies to help you navigate your child’s separation anxiety:

Take it slow!

Don’t expect your child to be able to cope with being away from you overnight. To best support them emotionally, taking small steps is the way to go. Start by leaving your child with someone who’s familiar to them (like their nanny, a relative or family friend) for short periods of time. Even 10-15 minutes will do! Then, little by little, extend the time that you are away from them by stepping out to run errands. When starting nursery, having your child initially spend just a few hours each day for the first week or two, as opposed to pushing them to stay the whole day from the very beginning, also tends to be the best approach. Respect your child’s pace and allow them to take the time they need to feel comfortable in the new environment and gradually build their self-confidence. It’s also a good idea to visit the nursery with your child a couple of times prior to his/her actual starting date. Spending some time with the nursery staff along with you can help ease your child’s separation anxiety.

Say goodbye and set clear expectations

Even before you leave the house or leave your child at nursery, set clear expectations regarding how long you be away for. Young children might not understand the concept of time yet but you can – and should! – use other references to help them understand when they can expect you back. For example: “I’ll return after snack time” or “I’ll be here after your nap”. Make sure you always keep your word! It’s also important to remember to say goodbye and not be tempted to sneak out to avoid crying. Leaving without them seeing you will only make your child more anxious and confused when they realize that you are no longer around. Instead, keep your goodbyes short and sweet and reassure your little one that you will definitely be back at the agreed time.

Build their confidence through play

Children make sense of the world around them through play, so do make use of this powerful tool to help them overcome anxiety. Encourage your child to use dolls, puppets or soft toys to role play leaving mum or dad and read stories about the topic – “The Kissing Hand” by Audrey Penn and “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst are two of my favourite ones. Simple games like peek-a-boo and playing hide-and-seek with parents or their favourite toys are also great to reinforce a child’s understanding of object permanence and the idea that our loved ones don’t simply disappear when out of sight. In a nutshell, introducing the idea of being away from you during activities in which your child feels comfortable in, can help prepare your little one for the actual experience and make it a little less scary for them too.

Establish routines and be consistent  

Routines can help young children develop a better understanding of everyday events and, consequently, give them a sense of security and stability by making their environment more predictable. As such, once you have decided to enrol your child at nursery, do your best to stick to the routine and take him/her every day (for short periods of time), especially during the settling in period. Some parents will fall into the trap of allowing their child a day off if they protest or throw a tantrum, however, this inconsistency is likely to backfire and cause even more emotional upset. Take a deep breath and remember that children look to adults for guidance! Do your best to remain calm and positive and follow all the points mentioned above when it comes to setting expectations and saying goodbye. Celebrating your child’s accomplishment of being away from you by spending time together doing something they love once you are reunited can also work wonders for their emotional wellbeing.

Every child is unique so respect their pace

It’s important to remember that separation anxiety is a natural part of early childhood development – Crying, tantrums and clinginess are normal reactions to separation which can start between 6-8 months and last until 2 and half to 3 years of age. However, depending on a child’s personality and experiences, intensity levels may vary. So, respect your child’s individual pace and be patient. No matter how frustrated you feel, avoid making negative comments regarding your child’s difficulty separating from you – especially in front of him/her. It’s also a good idea to share more information about your child with whoever is taking care of them while you’re away: Do they have a transitional object that gives them comfort and security? What are some of the strategies that you use to help your child calm down when upset? Ensure that the carer is aware of their daily routine too – after all, a hungry and tired child is more likely to cry and be upset than one whose basic needs have been met.

Think of yourself too!

Leaving your young child in someone else’s care for the first time can be very stressful for parents as well. Therefore, it’s also important to consider what can be done to put your mind at ease.  Asking questions and counting on the support of those around you, speaking to other parents who are currently experiencing the same with their child and following the tips above are just a few things that can be done to reduce your worries. Stay focused on your ultimate goal of easing your little one’s separation anxiety and remember: As difficult as it might seem for your child to separate from you now, this clinginess will definitely not last forever – trust the word of a mum of a 9-year-old and a 13-year-old teenager 😉

Mrs Carol. Oliveira
Nursery Manager
JINS Regent