How do you help a child with separation anxiety at nursery?

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What is separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety is a feeling of stress usually felt by a child when they are away from their parent or main carer.
At birth, your baby doesn’t realise that they are a separate individual because their parent responds to their every need.
As time passes, they understand you are a different person from them, when they start to move about.
When you are out of their sight, and your child is very young, they may not know where you are or even if you’ll ever return to them.
This can create a huge amount of anxiety for a child. It is normal for young children to cry when they are apart from their parent/main carer.
This is called separation anxiety.

Why do children experience separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety indicates that your baby realises how dependent they are on you. Your baby’s close bond with a parent/main carer may make them feel unsafe without them. Separation anxiety is a normal part of a child’s development between the ages of six months and five years. Research suggests separation anxiety peaks at 18 months, before subsiding at around three years.

How does a child display separation anxiety?

Babies and toddlers can become clingy and cry if parents leave them, even for a brief period of time.

Signs of separation anxiety

Anxiety UK has highlighted symptoms of separation anxiety occurring when a child is separated from parents.

Common behaviours include:

• Clinging to parents.
• Extreme and severe crying.
• Refusal to do things that would lead to separation.
• Physical illness such as headaches or vomiting.
• Violent, emotional tantrums.
• Refusal to sleep alone.
• Nightmares.

Parents experience anxiety too

If you have never been apart from your child before, the initial separation can be very hard on a parent.
You may worry a lot when your child is not with you.
You may only feel comfortable and stop worrying when you are with your child.
You may make excuses like refusing to drop off your child to avoid being away from them.

How should I respond to separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety can make it difficult to leave your child at nursery.
You might be sad when you see them crying and become concerned about what damage the separation may do to them, when you leave them.
But your child should experience no negative impact from being away from you. It is normal for your baby to feel anxious without you.
Parents must not feel guilty about leaving a child in someone else’s care.

If you are a parent who is feeling anxious about leaving your child at nursery, you can:

• Take deep breaths and count to 10.
• Remind yourself you will see your child soon at pick up time.
• Remember that by tackling separation anxiety, you are helping a child learn to cope without you and become more resilient and independent.

How do you help a child with separation anxiety? Tips for separation anxiety.

How do you help a child with separation anxiety?

Practise short separations
You could try leaving your child in someone else’s care for a few minutes and then gradually extend the time.
Start by leaving your child with someone they know well so they feel comfortable and safe in your absence. Gradually work towards longer separations and then leaving them with someone in places that they are not familiar with.

Leave your child with a comforting item

It may a source of reassurance and comfort for your child if you leave something with them such as a favourite toy. This may comfort them while you are gone.

Help your child get used to other children
You can take your child to a baby or toddler group which will give parents a chance to meet other parents while your child plays with other children.
This experience will get them used to being around children of their own age.

Familiarise child with the journey to nursery

Take time to walk or drive past the nursery regularly to enable your child to become familiar with the front of the nursery.

Be prepared for you and your child to feel distressed

It is normal for you and your child to feel sadness about being separated when dropping off your child at nursery. But remember, this is all part of your child’s development and you should not feel guilty for leaving them.

It is important your child’s anxiety doesn’t prevent them from having new experiences like socialising and it shouldn’t prevent you from going to work etc and having time away from your child.
You can help your child understand and deal with their feelings and,if they are old enough, you can talk to them about what’s happening, where you’re going and when you’ll be with them again.

Talk about what you’ll do together after nursery
If they are old enough, you can speak to your child about what you will both do together after nursery, so that they have something to look forward to.

Be positive about nursery and wave goodbye happily.

When you talk about nursery, make it sound like an exciting place so they look forward to going there. When dropping off your child at nursery, smile and wave goodbye happily, no matter how anxious you feel to avoid the child picking up on any negative feelings. By giving your child the experience of saying goodbye in a positive way they are developing independence and resilience.

Take comfort in the nursery’s key worker approach.

Children need strong attachments and comfort from adults. You can tackle separation anxiety by ensuring a child has developed an attachment in the nursery before you leave the child.
A nursery’s key worker system helps children settle in to nursery and helps address separation anxiety by enabling one nursery worker to take specific responsibility for your child and build a close bond with them.
Your child’s keyworker at nursery may use items such as books and toys to help build trust with your child. You can test the strength of the bond your child has with a key worker before you leave your child, by leaving the room or moving away from the child to see their reaction.

Get to know other parents

Getting to know other parents of children the same age is also a good idea. This includes going to events run by the nursery to get to know parents and help your child have fun with other nursery children.

When to get help for separation anxiety?

If your child’s separation anxiety is causing them a lot of distress, they are upset for a long time after you leave them, or it has been going on for more than a few weeks, talk to your health visitor. If you as a parent are experiencing separation anxiety for more than a few weeks, speak to your GP.

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