Some children get very upset when they are dropped off at their child care centre or the home of their family day carer. What can parents do to help these kids handle so-called ‘separation anxiety’?
“Please! Don’t start, not today,” pleads the mother in anguish as the gate to the child care centre slams shut. Panic starts to set in: “I’ll be late for work!”
What follows is the seemingly endless struggle which occurs almost every morning. The mother and her two-year-old child are locked together, pushing and pulling each other, until a staff member intervenes by holding the child, allowing the mother and child to physically separate for the day.
That moment of separation for the child brings with it an almost overwhelming feeling of anxiety, commonly referred to as separation anxiety.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
Separation anxiety in a child aged 0 to five years means that the child is experiencing a reaction of fear and anger to being separated from the parent. Parents often ask why it happens.
One way of understanding it is that the child experiences a loss of control in the new environment of the child care setting. While fear is a natural response to this loss of control, it is important to emphasise that separation anxiety is also a protest; the child has not initiated the separation and is angry about the decision that the parent has made.
Parents need to be reassured that when an informed decision has been made to put a child care structure in place, they must stand firm in their resolve in spite of their child’s protests.
How Separation Anxiety Is Expressed At Various Ages
Some children have a tendency towards experiencing separation anxiety whereas others do not. If the child does have the tendency, it will most likely be manifested in infancy. Babies, for example, can scream horrendously when the parent leaves.
Separation anxiety seems to reach its peak in toddlers at around 18 months of age. The child behaves in a fretful, clingy and distressed manner to the point where the parent feels exhausted, angry, guilty and helpless.
By pre-school age, separation anxiety generally starts to lessen and by age five it generally stops. If it does persist beyond this age, it is an indication that the child is worried and it may be disguised as stomach pains or headaches. Professional help might be needed.
Strategies For Parents
In their overwrought state, the trap that most parents fall into when they drop their children off to child care is that they attempt to avoid the child’s reaction. This avoidance makes the child’s anxiety worse.
Before leaving the childcare centre, it is important that the parent makes initial attempts to soothe the baby with gentle holding, cooing and reassurances, even in the face of the screaming. If this has little or no effect, it is important then that the baby be physically held by the caregiver until he or she is soothed and becomes settled in the absence of the parent.
It is difficult as a parent to remain calm in these situations, but this experience of calm reassurance is exactly what the child needs at the point of separation. In the face of separation anxiety, the child’s confidence will increasingly grow if the parent manages his or her own response to the separation.
Don’t sneak out – this will distress your child more. Make sure your child understands you are leaving, and give her reassurances that you are coming back, and tell her when.