Does your child cry and fuss when you drop them off at ECE or school? Yvonne Walus shares what's going on.
When a child forms a bond with their parent or caregiver, the child will feel distress every time that bond is threatened. This distress is called separation anxiety, and it can be triggered by the parent disappearing from view (like, to the toilet), or by the prospect of saying goodbye (at day care, or even at bedtime). Separation anxiety is a perfectly normal step in your child’s development, and a sign that you and your child have a healthy relationship, although it can get stressful. The irony is, as your toddler becomes more independent and keen to explore, he or she will actually feel more uncertain about facing the unknown without you. This phase usually starts around their eighth month – some kids may experience it a bit earlier, and others a few months later. Crying or temper tantrums during day care drop- offs, long and tearful goodbyes, panic attacks – these are all symptoms of separation anxiety.
Separation anxiety disorder
Separation anxiety disorder is not a normal stage of development. Its symptoms are similar to separation anxiety, but much more intense. The carer will tell you if your child takes an extraordinary amount of time to settle, and they will advise you how to progress. Older children with separation anxiety disorder may become upset simply at the thought of being away from you, experience nightmares about separation, or become physically ill (shortness of breath or vomiting) when saying goodbye. This disorder is very rare, and most children will outgrow their fears without intervention.
So what can you do?
Your natural instinct will likely be to stay and console the child, but (in most cases) the sooner you leave, the sooner the child will calm down. Make your farewells short and sweet, tranquil but rm. Early childhood educators advise that it all boils down to trust – as a parent, you need to have faith in the personnel to settle down your child quickly and to make it a fun day for everyone. Bringing a familiar object may help your child feel less alienated: Think blankie, bottle, sippy cup, teddy.
Separation anxiety gets worse when the child is already feeling vulnerable, so make sure that your child is as relaxed as possible: Clean nappy, full belly, well-rested. With older children, you can use a narrative to remind them what’s going to happen: “When we go through the front door, Mummy will give you a big hug and wait for you to sit down in the friendship circle. Then Mummy will wave goodbye and come back once you’ve had your nap.”
Goodbye is not forever
Experts also advise that the best cure for separation anxiety is experience: Teach your child that the parting is not forever, and that you will come back. Practice with shorter absences, gradually increasing the amount of time you’ll stay away. Ultimately, this will build up their mental resilience and coping skills, enabling you to leave them for longer periods of time.
Depending on your child’s personality, the separation anxiety phase can last months or years. Rest assured that this is an important step in your child’s development, and that your role as a parent is to guide them through this milestone, not to protect them from it. Of course, that’s often easier said than done.
Separation anxiety in parents
When you leave your child in someone else’s care for the first time, you may experience a range of emotions: Relief that you have some me-time at last, mixed in with secret gladness that your child loves you so much that they don’t want to let go, but primarily it’s heartache and guilt. You hate that someone else will give your child a cuddle at naptime, or see them take their first wobbly step. You hate not knowing what they’ve had for lunch. You wonder whether they’re safe, or hurt, or crying. This separation anxiety is common in parents, too. In time, you will learn to let go. It’s all training for when they leave the nest one day.
What parents say...
“I have two toddlers – same genes, same upbringing. My girl will
be happily left at kindy as long as one of her friends is there, otherwise she’ll pack a sad. Her brother, on the other hand, never cries when we say goodbye. He will simply walk off to inspect all the activity stations laid out for the morning, then settle at the one that interests him the most (regardless of what his sister or his friends are doing). So if your children are experiencing separation anxiety, it’s not your fault, and it’s not that you should have raised them differently, it’s just their personality.”
“Because of my work schedule, my daughters all had to start day care as babies. That made it super-easy on them (and super-hard on me). I never knew they were capable of separation anxiety until the oldest one went to school. Suddenly the middle one refused to stay at day care without her. Fortunately, a week later the baby of the family was due to start day care, and as soon as she had her youngest sister with her, my middle girl was fine.”
“My four-year-old would cry her head off every time I left the house, and beg me not to go. She was fine being left at day care, but she’d be inconsolable if I went out at night leaving her with a babysitter – and I mean, any babysitter: My mum, my sisters, her older cousin. Back then, she wouldn’t say why, but years later she told me she was convinced I’d have a car accident and die if I went off driving after dark. Now she’s got her restricted licence, and it’s my turn to feel like crying every time she drives off!”