5 Tips to Ease Separation Anxiety

young girl hugging parent's leg. separation anxiety concept

Separation anxiety is usually at its peak between 10 and 18 months. It typically ends by the time a child is 3 years old. (cedars-sinai.org). sasiistock/getty

The long, (sometimes) peaceful days of summer are winding down. You’re drinking your tepid morning coffee, attempting to keep the baby from eating half of a banana without chewing and watching your toddler ransack the Tupperware drawer – again – when your eyes fall on the sheet of paper on the counter. It’s the supply list for your child’s new school. At first, it was fun to order the little froggy backpack and label his bag of extra clothes. But now you start to count the days and realize that soon it will be time for a big change. You know the day is coming when you will load him up, walk him in, hand him to someone you’ve only recently met and walk away.

You know he’s likely to struggle at first, as will you.

The day comes, however, be it week eight of life or age 8, that all parents must separate from their children. And though none of us relishes this sometimes-overwhelming shift, we will all weather it and come out on the other side. Be it Mother’s Day Out, a morning day camp or a full-time preschool program, time apart may challenge us. But it will be worth it.

I’ve lived both sides of this dynamic. First, I was an educator, standing in the doorway reaching for the wide-eyed little one as they looked from me to their parents with growing confusion. And one day, before I was prepared for it myself, I was a mother, awkwardly shifting the tiny, animal-shaped backpack in my hands in order to more safely pass a writhing, unhappy child to a compassionate and practiced hand, already greeting my child by name and reassuring us both with familiar words. “I’m glad you’re here. You’re safe. Mama comes back.”

“Mama comes back,” I said to myself as I turned and walked away, feeling my eyes sting as I heard my child’s cries behind me. Day one was not easy for me as an educator, soothing my newest friends who simply wanted their mom or dad. It was not easy for me as a parent, letting someone else comfort and support my little one. And I knew it was not easy for my child, entering a new environment with new people, having to explore without their most trusted people. But that’s day one. It gets better.

I’ve returned, after my stay-at-home mama years, to education and have become quite familiar with the dynamic of separation anxiety due to the ages with which I specialize. Separation anxiety is common in young children and comes in phases based on development, age and situation.

The 1-year-olds who enter my room each summer are at a peak of developmental separation anxiety, requiring lots of patience from loved ones and educators to support them and connect with them. However, it is not uncommon for school-aged children to struggle with transitions and new beginnings.

Ways to Ease Separation Anxiety

With that in mind, here are some things that I would tell you, both as a mama and a toddler wrangler, that may ease your upcoming transitions, new beginnings and separations:

Attachment is a good thing.

Your baby, now sitting up but non-mobile, darts his eyes to you as you exit the room to grab a package off the porch. He wails as you round the corner, and you ask yourself if you’ve failed him. You’ve not failed him at all. He’s developed a secure attachment to you, necessary for his own thriving development and safety. He has begun to understand the two of you are not the same being and can separate. It motivates him to call out for you, come after you, look for you.

Attachment is the root of relationship and key to growth. Think of it as a root system. Healthy roots, healthy shoots. Remember this as your child struggles during periods of separation. This is normal and healthy.

They will forgive you.

It might feel as though your 12-month-old is shooting you daggers and making mental notes for future therapy appointments as you set her down in her classroom and say, “Have a good day!” It may haunt you as you try to settle into your workday and make you wonder if she will trust you again. But take a deep breath. Young children quickly settle in the care of a loving adult and often begin to play within minutes of even the roughest of drop-offs.

In my years of education, I’ve yet to find a diary entry ascribing betrayal to their parents or detailing damaging internal anguish. At pick-up time, you’ll likely find your child runs to you grinning and excited after a full day of good things.

Emails are your new best friend.

If you’re struggling with your own comfort as you and your child adjust to a new setting, school or even an arrangement with a family member watching your child, a quick text or email check-in will alleviate much of your worry. Often you will get a reply briefly detailing what your child is currently doing, how long it took them to settle and possibly even a photo of them happily passing their time apart from you.

Asking for reassurance on hard days is natural for each of us, no matter our role. This is true on day one and day 75. It’s okay to check in.

Confident Leaving.

Your child has long looked to you to guide his feelings about unknowns and mysterious things. Attached and attuned to you, he has learned that when Mama is relaxed and easy, he is safe and, conversely, that when Mama is tense, he needs to be watchful.

As you approach the daycare drop-off or head for the door on a date night, give your child a smile, wish them a fun day and say, “I’ll see you later,” in a tone that speaks calm and confidence. If you are anxious, they will likely be anxious. If you are positive, they will likely be positive.

Predictable, Comforting Routines.

I often encourage parents in school settings to come consistently at the same time, follow a predictable routine and speak to children about upcoming transitions in a mundane, cheerful way. Driving to school, you could talk about who might be there today or what sort of experiences they might expect. As you approach, put down their bag so your hands are free to fully support your child as you say goodbye.

A basic framework of a simple goodbye ritual is “Hug, Kiss, Goodbye.” Use it as a template to create your own meaningful ritual: a particular pattern of actions done warmly and calmly to signal the transition is here (and we’re all going to be okay). This could be three nose nubs and one “Go Pokes,” or any short combination you and your children land upon. My own school-aged children devised their own and still ask for “Hug, Squeeze, Kiss” if we are parting ways. If your departure each day is predictable, your child will settle in more quickly and eventually join their class smoothly. 

Most of all, remember that you can trust the hands who will hold them as you leave. You have found this good place or these good people to know and love your precious ones. Trust them to be honest with you, call you with emergencies and care for your children as if they are their own. Those of us who work with children are able to calmly comfort your child, meet their needs and sit patiently with them while they adjust to new settings or new experiences. And when pick-up time comes, you will be together again with lots of stories for one another. Separation anxiety may ebb and flow, but your connection with your little one is steady, strong and special.

Alicia KobilnykAlicia is an Early Childhood Educator who works with young toddlers. She finds joy and inspiration to write in their cheeky shenanigans, as well as those of her two daughters.

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Categories: Babies & Toddlers, Features