Reducing separation anxiety in young children

11 February 2020

Reducing separation anxiety in young children

  • Anxiety
by Michael Grose

In the early years some clinginess, crying and tantrums are normal when a child is separating from parents. While a great deal of separation anxiety disappears with age, some young children will continue to experience anxiety when going to pre-school, child care or other care arrangements. This anxiety can be distressing for parents, and become an unnecessary source of guilt, further fuelling a child’s anxiety. Many children who experience separation anxiety are biologically predisposed to anxiousness, shying away from new or novel situations. Here are some ways to support an anxious child at drop-off:

Become practised at separations

Help your child become used to separations by leaving them with caregivers for short periods at first and gradually increasing the length of separation.

Get your child separation-ready

Tired, hungry kids are generally clingy, cranky kids. Similarly, rushed kids are often stressed kids. If your child continues to cling to you when you leave them at pre-school or with carers, check your home routines. Are they going to bed early enough to get sufficient sleep? Are they waking in time to complete their morning activities without being rushed? Are they getting an energy-boosting breakfast such as porridge or an egg to provide the fuel to put them in the right mood? Sometimes simple adjustments to home routines can make a big difference to how a child reacts when leaving their parents in the morning.

Develop a regular quick goodbye ritual

Rituals, like routines, are both reassuring and personal. Develop your own special good-bye ritual, which can be simple such as a special wave or kiss. Alternatively, a fun good bye ritual such as a high five, low five, fist pump bursting into a hand explosion can be something a child enjoys. One you’ve said good-bye leave quickly without stalling or looking back. Avoid making leaving a bigger deal than it what it is.

Take part of you with them

If the pre-school or child care centre allows it encourage your child to bring a comforter such as a favourite soft toy, part of a blanket or even something that you’ve given them such as photo or toy. Taking a part of you with them can provide an added layer of security when you’re not around.

Stay confident

Kids will often take their cues from their parents so a calm, reassuring approach can give your child the confidence they need that they will be okay.

Involve your child’s teacher or carer in the drop-off

Discuss separation with the pre-school teacher or carer and involve them in the transition. Settle your young child with the other carer, preferably being involved in an activity before saying good bye and making a quick exit while your child is in the care of another adult.

When separation anxiety is not normal

Most separation anxiety is a normal part of your child’s development. Some children will experience separation anxiety that is outside the normal range, which may require professional intervention. It can be difficult to determine whether a child’s anxiety is normal or can be considered a disorder as many of the behaviours are the same. Consider seeking professional help if some or all of the following occurs:

  • the intensity of the anxiety is outside the normal range for their age
  • your child becomes agitated at the mention of being separated from you
  • they withdraw from normal activities at home and at pre-school
  • the separation anxiety continues regularly for four weeks or more

Your child’s local pre-school or your general practitioner are good places to start when looking for professional assistance with separation anxiety.

For a full blueprint for managing and minimising children’s anxiety check out Anxious Kids co authored with Dr. Jodi Richardson.

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Michael Grose

Michael Grose, founder of Parenting Ideas, is one of Australia’s leading parenting educators. He’s an award-winning speaker and the author of 12 books for parents including Spoonfed Generation, and the bestselling Why First Borns Rule the World and Last Borns Want to Change It. Michael is a former teacher with 15 years experience, and has 30 years experience in parenting education. He also holds a Master of Educational Studies from Monash University specialising in parenting education.