It’s getting to the time of year when we have to think about our children starting a new school or nursery, or their return to school/preschool after the long summer break. Maybe they will be changing teacher, or moving to a new classroom, and for many children it can feel like starting from scratch all over again. What can we do to help them settle into a new environment, and cope with the pain of separation anxiety?
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 extremely 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 or your parenting if they skip happily into nursery without a backwards glance!
If you are finding separation and issue, 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! What can you do to address your own feelings about this? It’s a horrible thing to leave your child when you know they are upset. Be aware if this is making you sad, anxious, or even angry. It can be just as intense for us parents, and extremely guilt-inducing. Be confident that you have chosen the best setting possible for your child, and trust your instincts.
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. Make sure your child has had as much time as they can to become used to the new setting before you have to leave them there, and spend time talking about the great things about the new place and all the fantastic things they can expect to happen there.
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? If your child is struggling, building a dialogue with their keyworker/teacher will be the best way for you to know what’s really going on, and you can work together to find solutions.
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. Young children don’t have a very good concept of time, but it is important to tell them when you are coming back to collect them.
7. On the other hand, don’t drag out the goodbyes either. When you have to leave, leave. If you keep hanging on for more and more cuddles, your child will do everything they can to keep you there, which won’t help the situation.
8. If possible, try and stay until your child is involved in an activity. If they have something interesting to do, it should be easier to leave them. Then you can say a brief goodbye and make your exit. Make sure their keyworker/teacher is on hand to keep them engaged with the activity as you leave.
9. One thing you can try with an older child, is to give them 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. Strange as it sounds, they are more likely to believe you are going to come back if you do this! We have also tried drawing a matching heart on the inside of both of our wrists, so she can look at the heart and remember Mummy and that Mummy loves her and will be back soon.
10. 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, even if they enjoy it, and they will need a couple of hours after coming home before their cortisol (stress hormone) levels are back to normal. They need 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.
You might also see an increase in “bad” behaviour when they are at home, even if they are impeccably behaved at school. My daughter would come straight over to me and thump me when she first got out of school in the afternoon – she was knackered, hungry and had been holding her feelings in all day, so as soon as she was with the person she trusted, she could let it all out. While we’d all love to be greeted with a massive smile and a cuddle, then go home for a nice evening together, you may find yourself having to cut them some slack for a while until they adjust!
Of course all children are different. Both my children struggled with separating from me going into school, but it does get better with time. I’d say that the majority of children I’ve seen in the playground have been better than mine!
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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