As an Early Childhood Educator, I know all too well about separation anxiety in young children. It is a traumatic experience for the child, and also for the parent having to leave their child in the care of someone else. This is a topic that comes up a lot, with parents and educators searching for solutions to the tears and tantrums that generally come from separation anxiety.
So what is separation anxiety? Simply put it is when a child feels anxious when separated from their parent. Sometimes it doesn’t even have to be for a great length of time, it can merely be when a parent leaves the room/home for a short period of time. Yes, you read right a child can experience separation anxiety if you were just to leave the room. Let me explain a bit more, when a baby has formed a healthy relationship with their parents and other prominent people in his/her life, the baby will continue to play and explore in Mum’s presence. However, if she was to leave the room the baby will let his/her feelings be known, often through crying. This is a healthy attachment and is called “Secure Attachment.”
It is important to understand that children younger than 2 years old have no concept of the future, and therefore cannot visualise the return of their parents. All they understand is that their parents are gone.
Development Stages of Separation Anxiety
- Less than 6 months – in general children do not object to being in the care of someone else.
- 6-12 months – this is usually when the first signs of separation anxiety appear
- 1-2 years – this is when separation anxiety is strongest.
- 2 years – gradually, separation anxiety decreases as toddlers meet developmental milestones such as language and are able to visualise the return of their parents.
- Over 2 years – this all depends on the individual. It is not uncommon for children as old as 9 years old to still display aspects of separation anxiety.
No matter the age of your child, it is always crucial to respect that your children’s attachments are legitimate needs. This is why it is important for some children to get to know the other person over several shorter visits.
Children are excellent judges of character, so if they protest strongly about being with a particular person, you should definitely take note.
It is also essential to mention that some children may not be crying due to separation, but rather due to some underlying emotional cause. For example if a child senses that the other adult is open and trusting they may feel safe enough to express their emotions through crying. Generally because at home the child may be distracted from crying, and if you have read my past blog posts you will know that crying is a legitimate need.
Crying can also be related to another separation situation in the past that the baby/child still must release in order for balance to resume within the body.
My Tips For Separation Anxiety:
- Children are very intuitive and can pick up on the emotions of those around them. If you are feeling anxious ensure you look after yourself first. Take some deep breaths, meditate, talk to someone about your feelings and let the tears flow.
- When meeting a new educator, babysitter, etc for the first time, take your child with you and pay attention to how they react to the person. This is not to say that the person is bad, sometimes your child won’t click with everyone – which is completely normal.
- Ask the person how they respond to separation anxiety and the release of emotions such as crying and tantrums. You will know if the person is right for your child or not.
- Always include your child in the decision, and tell them what is going to happen. For example “I’m going to drop you off at [insert name], you will play there, eat, have a nap, then at 4pm I will be back here to pick you up.” It doesn’t matter how young your child is, getting in the routine of respecting them and letting them know what is going on in their life is crucial to forming strong relationships.
- Allow your child to release their emotions in your safe and loving presence. It has been scientifically proven that our tears contain stress hormones such as cortisol; crying is the body’s way of releasing stress. Tell your child when they are upset: “you’re safe” “I’m here” “I’m listening” “It’s ok to cry.” If you feel emotions coming up for you about crying, pay attention to them and talk about it with someone you feel safe with. As the saying goes “it’s better out than in,” when a child is given the opportunity to release their emotions they move on very quickly and the stressor no longer bothers them.
Remember to follow your own intuition and listen to your child’s feeling as well as your own. This will make the transition for your child into the care of another person a lot easier for both of you.