Coping With Separation Anxiety

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Starting daycare is a major life transition for both young children and their families. Change, even when it is a positive change can be stressful. In many cases this may be the first time a child is away from the secure and loving arms of their family. Both the child and parents may experience anxiety about starting a daycare experience. Parents want to know that their child will be in a loving and safe environment when the child is not in their direct care. It is not uncommon for parents to feel guilty about placing the child in a daycare program, thus making the farewell more difficult. Young children have been developing a attachment to their parents and are often secure in their daily home life and routine. There are specific measures that both parents and caregivers can take to ease the transition to care and alleviate separation anxiety.

For Caregivers

  • Recognize the parent's feelings- Both parents and children are undergoing a major life change. Realize that parents may have feelings of apprehension or guilt in leaving their child in your care. Be sure to make both child and parents feel welcome. You can make them feel welcome by labeling the child's cubby and other personal spaces in advance. You may want to hang a poster or banner welcoming the new family.
  • Make the first day a first week- One of the most sucessful strategies for alleviating separation anxiety is to encourage a slow transition. If at possible, provide opportunties for the family and child to get to know you before the child starts daycare. Some caregivers make home visits where the child can meet them in the child's secure surroundings. Some caregivers or daycare programs plan an open house, a chance for the child and parent to explore the program together. Invite the parents to bring the child in on a gradual schedule to allow them to adjust to daycare in a gentle way. Maybe only an hour the first day, two hours the next, until the child is comfortable remaining in care the full day.
  • Reinforce a sense of trust with the child- Young children's separation anxiety is often closely tied to fears of abandonment. It is important that they will know that the parent will be returning for them at a designated time. With an older child you can even point out on the clock when they will return or give them a concrete milestone such as, "Mom will be back for you right after lunch time". It may also be helpful to discuss with the child where she will be and what she will be doing during the time of separation. In any case remind the child that she will indeed return.
  • Let them bring something from home- Sometimes called transisitional objects; blankies, teddys and other objects of comfort can help a child feel secure. Many caregivers find that an object that helps the child remember the parent is of great benefit. These "rememberance" objects may include photos or an object of the parents clothing.
  • Communicate with the parent- They are your greatest ally in making the separation a smooth and calm experience. Be sure to let them know if you have any specific concerns and needs. Don't be afraid to specifically ask how you can be of assistance. " I see you are ready to leave now, would you like me to hold Todd?"
  • Say Good-bye- You may wish to warn the child that the parent will be leaving in five minutes, or that after the story they will be going to work. When it is time for the parent to go, encourage the parent to say good-bye and go. Continued extensions to the separation seem to only add to anxiety and make the separation more difficult. Discourage the parent from "sneaking" out. Regardless of how upset the child is, sneaking out only adds to their anxiety, increases fear of abandonment, and breaks down the child's sense of trust. You may want to help the parents establish a routine for saying good-bye. Such a routine may include 3 hugs and a wave from the window.

Remember overcoming separation anxiety and adjusting to daycare, like any major life change is a gradual process. Soon daycare will become a positive and exciting part the child's daily routine.