Tips for Separation Anxiety at Child Care Drop-Off
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Transitioning to daycare or preschool marks an exhilarating yet potentially anxiety-inducing phase for both children and parents. It brings about expectations for increased social interactions and independent separation from parents, which can trigger healthy levels of separation anxiety or separation distress in children when their parents depart.
Separation anxiety is particularly prevalent around eight months to a year, as children develop a sense of “object” permanence and understand that people continue to exist even when they are out of sight. As toddlers grow more self-reliant, they may experience heightened uncertainty regarding separations and interactions with others, leading to an upsurge in behaviors aimed at keeping their parents close, such as crying. It is also important to remember that not experiencing separation distress is also developmentally appropriate. Sometimes watching another child cry and not want their parent to leave can be hard to watch when your child bounces into preschool.
During times of change, like starting a new school, young children often display amplified signs of separation anxiety. From an evolutionary standpoint, these behaviors can be viewed as adaptive responses. When there is perceived danger in the environment, it is natural to seek the comfort and protection of those who care for us. Furthermore, it is developmentally appropriate for children to experience some level of separation anxiety, even throughout the elementary school years. Nevertheless, it can be distressing and worrisome for parents to witness their child exhibiting signs of separation anxiety.
Here are several suggestions that can support young children and prevent or lessen separation anxiety when starting preschool:
Engage in open conversations with your child regarding the upcoming transition to preschool and discuss what both of you will be doing during their time at school. This communication can reassure children by letting them know your whereabouts as well.
When playing at home, you can practice a drop-off and pick-up situation where you emphasize that you always come back.
If you know who your child’s teacher will be talk to your child about their teacher. This shows your child that you are comfortable with and excited to get to know their teacher more, signaling to them that this is a safe person.
Allow your child to bring in something from home (a toy, blanket) that brings them comfort.
You can connect with the director of the program to discuss the protocol and how drop-off is going to look for your child. This will help prepare you for what is to come so that you can adequately prepare your toddler.
Bring the caregiver/teachers up to speed on your child’s likes and dislikes to set them up for success. It might be fun to put together a one-page profile so that the new caregiver knows what to offer your child throughout the day. Some preschools already offer this in their paperwork before you begin.
For all kiddos and especially young toddlers, benefit from concrete reminders of their parents. Leave a tangible reminder of yourself and your love. An example of this might be a voice recording of your child’s favorite story. Around the age of 2, children can use a photograph of their mothers to help sustain their adaptation to a new setting in the mother’s absence (Passman & Longeway, 1982).
1. As the parent, take some time to process how you feel about the separation so that you are aware of your feelings and how to ease and prepare for the separation. The transition might be hard for you too, but you want to communicate to your child that school is a safe, fun place to be.
2. Why are you excited for your child to attend preschool? What are the benefits? Asking these questions helps remind you why you signed up for it. For me, I reminded myself of the rich social environment my children are getting access to.
3. Most children are easily redirected after the initial separation. The average range for a young child that is under separation distress may be one minute to up to ten minutes.
4. Remind yourself of the reunion and how sweet it will be.
Remember, every child’s experience is unique, and with patience, support, and understanding, you can navigate this transition successfully.
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About the Author, Michelle Tangeman
Michelle Tangeman is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, a board-certified behavior analyst, and a mom of two young children. Michelle offers a free toddler tantrum masterclass at thrivingtoddler.com. She also co-hosts the Parenting Understoodpodcast.