Coping with separation anxiety

posted in: Toddler | 0
My baby is starting school! Where did the time go?


Is your child starting school next week? Mine is, and I know that the morning drop offs are going to be hard! She didn’t like being left at preschool, and I have no doubt that school is going to be the same for some time to come.

It is incredibly common for children to suffer from separation anxiety – this fear of being abandoned starts at around 9 months of age, when a baby starts to realise that their parent is a separate being to them, and could actually LEAVE! Babies and young children are incredibly vulnerable, and rely entirely on their parent/carer for their survival, so it is understandable that they find their parent leaving them to be a scary prospect.

It is said that separation anxiety peaks at the age of 2 and a half, though in my experience some children can be unhappy to be away from their parents much later than this – easily up to the age of 6 and beyond.

The issue we have is that many of us have to work, and we have to send our children into some sort of childcare, right at the time when they are struggling the most with mummy going away. We also start our children in full time education at a much younger age than most other countries, so this is an issue that crops up a lot.

It is important to remember that there is nothing wrong with your child if they cling to you – and equally there is nothing wrong with your child if they skip happily into nursery without a backwards glance!

Here are some ideas that might help:

  1. Accept that this is your child’s character and they probably won’t change for some time – there is no quick fix!
  2. For children below school age, choose childcare that is as similar to a home setting as possible. A nanny is ideal, or a childminder. At this age they don’t actually need to socialise in a nursery environment, so if your child would be happier in a more homely environment, go for it.
  3. Give them plenty of time to get used to any new setting where you will be leaving them. Childcare settings have different policies about how they settle in children – talk to them about your child and their specific needs, and make sure they have as long as possible for settling in.
  4. If your child is in a nursery/preschool/school, make sure you are happy that their keyworker/teacher is putting in the effort to build an attachment with your child: are they interested in their likes and dislikes? Do they talk to you about your child like they really know them? Do they plan activities for your child that suits them?
  5. Just as your child needs an attachment to a keyworker, as children get older it becomes increasingly important that they bond with another child too. Can you arrange playdates to help them make a friend?
  6. When leaving your child, don’t sneak off without saying goodbye. This might seem like the easiest thing to do, but this isn’t fair on your child, who won’t know when you’re going. On the other hand, don’t drag out the goodbyes either.
  7. If possible, try and stay until your child is involved in an activity. If they have something interesting to do, it should be slightly easier to leave them.
  8. One thing you can try with an older child, is to give your child something “precious” of yours to look after while you are away. This could be a hairband, or small photo – anything really. Tell your child you have to come back to collect the precious thing. Strangely, they are more likely to believe you are going to come back if you do this!

Often, your child will be crying their eyes out when you leave, but their keyworker will tell you that once you were out the door they stopped crying almost immediately.

Finally, be prepared for your child to be exhausted when they come home! Nursery or school is a high-stress environment for a young child, and they will need a couple of hours after coming home before their cortisol (stress hormone) levels are back to normal. They need quiet time to reconnect with you. They might want to be cuddled to sleep, and you might see an increase in night-waking as they attempt to get as much time with you as possible. If you can go with this, and give them the attention they need, this is the kindest thing for your child and will help maintain your connection.

If you would like to read a longer article about helping your child adjust to school, here is a good article from Dr Laura Markham of Helping Kids Adjust to School.


We run workshops to help you understand your toddler/preschooler and deal with difficult behaviour. If you are interested in finding out more, please see here.


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