Whether it’s your little one's first day at early education or they’re halfway through their second semester, separation anxiety can hit them like a ton of bricks at any time. When their little face crumples and they dissolve into a flood of tears and won’t let you go, it can be really challenging as a parent to stand strong and not feel anxious and upset with yourself.
When your child makes it clear that they don’t want you to leave them, what steps can you take?
Step 1. Remind yourself that this is completely normal
Separation anxiety in children is a really common part of your child’s development and a normal fear, especially when children are away from their family. From around 8 months of age, children will start to display signs of separation anxiety. Rest assured, this means they have developed a healthy attachment relationship with you.
Step 2. Create a positive association
If you’re leaving your child at a new place such as an early education centre or at a friend’s or relative’s house, set them up for success by first paying a visit to the new place together so that your child can familiarise themselves with the surroundings and new people in the comfort of your presence. This will create a positive association and will help them feel less distress about being left without you.
Step 3. Introduce a comfort object
Having something that your child can touch, cuddle or look at to give them reassurance and comfort is a powerful tool. Try drawing a heart on your wrist and then matching it on your child’s wrist as you say ‘whenever we look at this heart, we know that we’re thinking of each other’. Or remind them that you’ve packed their special cuddle toy in their backpack in case they need some extra comfort.
Step 4. Create a goodbye ritual together
As tempting as it may be - don’t sneak off! This can be confusing for your child. Once they notice that you’re gone, then they might spend their whole day crying and trying to find you. Instead, create a nice goodbye routine. At Being, we like to say “one kiss, one cuddle, bye bye”.
Don’t prolong your goodbye, but reassure your child that they’re safe, here to have fun and that you will be back to pick them up. It’s important that you stay composed otherwise your emotional energy will affect your little one. Prolonging your goodbye can increase your child’s anxiety and fear of you leaving. If you feel concerned, remember that you can always call the centre to check in and see how your child settled in.
Step 5. Communication
Talk about your child’s feelings together so that they feel seen and heard. Sometimes it helps to share some of your own memories of when you were little and missed your Mum/Dad or felt nervous about being somewhere new.
Example: “I used to feel sad when I went to my Grandma’s house too. But my Mum always came back and picked me up and afterwards we would go home and read books together. Perhaps we can read some books together when we get home today!”
If you feel overly concerned, speak with your child’s educators about it as they are experienced in helping families with the transition and they’ve seen many children go through the same emotions. In time, the anxiety will dissipate and your child will be waving you off happily.