Dealing With Separation Anxiety In Small Children

by Carol E. Jordan

You have a beautiful child who is the epitome of independence. S/he plays well alone or with other children and sleeps alone at night. There is just one problem Your sweet, independent little angel refuses to allow you out of his/her sight.

Even a trip to the grocery store alone results in cries of desperation to go along rather than stay with the other parent, grandparent, or sitter. Nothing can calm the fears of this child or squash the anxiety you feel when you know the tantrum is coming.

What can you do to ease the tension and calm those separation fears? I am going to offer a few tips for you to make separations easier. These are things that I have learned work best while teaching preschool and are things I recommend to the parents in my classroom when they have separation anxiety issues.

  • A consistent schedule is very important for children. They need consistency in all aspects of their lives from their daily schedule to the people who care for them. Some children do well with change and adapt quickly. Other children don't do so well with change and take longer to adapt. These children need extra time, understanding, and compassion while adjusting to any change.

  • Children need to be reassured that YOU are confident that their care giver is capable and trustworthy. If you seem anxious or upset at leaving your child, chances are your child will reflect those same emotions. Children are amazing in that they can easily read a person's emotional state and immediately mimic the same emotions, no matter how much that person tries to hide those emotions. If you are anxious, your child will be anxious. If you are enthusiastic, your child will be enthusiastic. Remember though that children pick up on things that we may try to hide from them. This means that if you are pretending to be happy and enthusiastic but inside are anxious your child is very likely to still pick up on the anxiety and act it out.

  • Children are more resilient than we give them credit for being. They can adapt (even the shy ones) and adjust more quickly than you may think as long as you show them that you are comfortable with the care giver and facility in general.

    Also, since they are so resilient, you don't need to worry if she cries a little (or even a lot). I once had a 2-year-old who cried... I am talking screeching, screaming, turning purple and not being able to catch her breath crying. For a solid 2 months she did this every day, all day. It was hard on everyone. Her parents, us, and the other children.

    We all stuck with it and continued to tell her we loved her and we wanted her to be happy. Her parents continued to tell her how wonderful we were and how wonderful it was to have so many friends. All of a sudden, her mother brought her in one day and she was smiling when she came through the door. When mom left, she was still smiling. All day long she smiled, laughed, played and had fun. She seemed like an entirely different child. Never again, after that point did she cry unless she was honestly, and truly hurt.

    It took 2 months of consistent caring, affection, and understanding... but she finally decided to be happy with her new caregivers and playmates.

  • Children need a chance to prepare themselves for a new childcare arrangement. Take her in before you will be leaving her full time and allow her to play in the room with the children and teachers while you sit and watch or play with her.

    A good *quality* child care center will allow this because they understand that children need an introduction before they can be expected to be happy with the change. Try to visit a couple of times at different times of the day (story time, centers time, outside play time) so that your child can experience different activities and routines and know what to expect throughout the day.

    Make sure the teacher spends time talking with your child and getting to know her. (This will help with the transition also.)

  • Do NOT hang around! It does not make the transition easier on your child if you hang around. All that does is tell your child that you are not comfortable with leaving her in that situation and adds to your child's anxiety.

    It is easiest if you hug and kiss your child and immediately leave with promises to return to pick her up. You may even tell her to be sure to ask "Ms. ??" for anything she needs because that is what "Ms. ??" is there to do.

    A good preschool teacher will take the new child from the parent and reassure the child while heading off to get the child involved in an activity. Often times the child stops crying before the parent is even back in the car. If her crying causes you to stay longer or you pick her up early because she is upset she will learn that crying gets Mommy to come get her.

    This begins a vicious cycle of manipulation which only satisfies the child, not the parent. Be careful that you do not get sucked into that cycle of manipulation. Feel free to call when you get to work (school, home, where ever) and check on her -- she will be fine.

  • Make up a drop-off routine. I have had many parents do this in a variety of ways. The most popular is to fill the child's hand with kisses that the child then stuffs into a pocket or his/her cubby. Throughout the day, when the child is feeling lonely or sad, the child can "pull out" a kiss to help ease his/her fears.

    I have also had parents leave a family photo in the child's cubby so that the child can always look at the family when s/he is feeling sad or lonely. There are many ways to say goodbye, and finding one that can last through the day can sometimes make that drop-off transistion go more smoothly for everyone, you included.

  • I have tried all these things and stand by their effectiveness. Parents have done this for years with wonderful successes. The key is consistency and patience. If you are consistent and continually reassure your child that everything will be fine and you will return, your child will become more comfortable and and will be able to enjoy her/himself more.

    Also, I would like to recommend a book that helped my own daughter deal with being away from her grandmother. No Matter What, by Debi Gliori that explains that mothers love their children no matter what they do or where they are.

    This book helped us through many a night when our daughter was missing her grandmother and I have used it to help other children through the drop-off transition as well. I hope it can be as helpful for you as it has been for us.

    Carol E. Jordan is the mother of 2 children. She has been a preschool teacher for 9 years and is working toward a CDA (Child Development Associate) an Early Childhood Education professional credential.

    Copyrighted © Carol E. Jordan. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org, LLC.