When my son was very young, I remember dropping him off at the child care center and then preschool. I recall seeing little ones crying, clinging to their parents – and then seeing those same parents crying in the parking lot. It is very difficult to leave your child somewhere when he is upset, but understanding that he is experiencing separation anxiety, which is normal, can be helpful.
Separation anxiety is not only normal, but is also very predictable. A child will start to show fear of people and places he is not familiar with around eight months of age. Separation anxiety usually peaks between 10 – 18 months and should fade by two years of age. This development is normal and a good sign that the child has formed important attachments with parents and loved ones. It is actually more worrisome if a child does not exhibit any preference of caregivers or issues with them leaving.
Although separation anxiety is normal, it is still upsetting for all involved. So how can caregivers make it easier for the child? The Illinois Early Learning Project offers some great tips:
- Read children's books about separation
- Take time and stay with the child in a new place or around a new person until they become familiar
- Reassure the child you will return. You may also say when you will return, like after naptime or at dinnertime – be sure to keep your word
- Let him have a favorite blanket or other possession for comfort
- Avoid leaving your child if he is hungry, tired or sick
- Don't tease or scold him for being upset and DO NOT sneak away without telling him
- Don't bribe him not to cry
In addition, leaving the child for short periods of time at first – like a trial period – may be helpful. Also, having special hello and good-bye rituals may lessen the child's distress since children at that age love routines. Children can pick up on their parents feelings, so if parents are feeling anxious or guilty about leaving their child, that can contribute to the child's anxiety. Being confident in your child care/school choice and remembering that a little time apart is good for you should ease those feelings.
It is important to note, that if a child continues to be inconsolable in a new setting for more than two weeks, or if he stops eating or sleeping well, refuses to interact with others and has an ongoing change in behavior, that there may be another reason for your child's behavior. Consider other possible sources of stress in his life and/or consider alternative child care arrangements.
Something else I remember from those days were the parents that got really upset when they went to pick up their child, and the child wasn't that excited to see them and didn't want to leave. I thought, "you wanted them to be happy to be here, but you don't want them to be too happy!" When that scenario happens, parents need to feel grateful that their child feels that safe, secure and happy in his environment away from home and it is great news for his social and emotional development. So join in the fun for a while!
Source: Illinois Early Learning Project http://illinoisearlylearning.org