Separation Anxiety – How to Help Your Child Ease into a New Environment

Father Saying Goodbye To Daughter As She Leaves Home For School

It’s back to school time! While it’s an exciting time, many children can be anxious about this new transition, and may suffer from separation anxiety. It is completely normal for children to exhibit stress when having to say goodbye to a caregiver. Developmentally, babies begin to understand the idea of object permanence, which is why they may not understand that, even though their caregiver is out of sight, it doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They may cry, become clingy, throw a tantrum, or withdraw altogether. This may go on until babies/children are able to hold loved ones in their minds.

It’s important to remember that not all children are alike, and some may experience separation anxiety, and some may not.  The other important thing to remember is that this is a normal part of a child’s development, peaking anywhere from 14 to 18 months old, though some children may experience separation anxiety up until age four. 

Below are ways to prepare a child for the transition, and things we can do when school begins for our child, as well as for ourselves.

How to Prepare a Child for the Transition to a New Environment

  • Visit the childcare center before the first day. If possible, introduce them to new teachers/providers, show them where their cubby is, where they will eat lunch, and play on the playground for a while.  Discuss what the day may look like. Knowing what to expect can ease anxiety for everyone!
  • Keep a positive mindset.  Children take their cues from the adults around them.  If you are calm and positive about the change, children will feel that.  While it’s important to be open to discussing the change and addressing children’s fears, it’s equally important not to focus on the fears.  

What Caregivers Can Do When School Begins

  • Let your child know that you will be thinking of them throughout the day. Send a family photo with them, and help them understand that you love them and will be there at the end of the day to take them home. 
  • Develop a morning routine. Have clothes ready and items packed the night before. Make time for breakfast together. Discuss the child’s day.  What are they looking forward to? Having a calm and organized morning reduces stress for the child as well as the adult! 
  • Develop a goodbye ritual. This could be a secret handshake, high five, or hug.  I once saw a parent who drew a heart on his left hand, and a heart on his child’s right hand. When they held hands going into the school, it “charged” up the love, so whenever the child was feeling lonely, sad, or anxious, all she had to do was touch the heart, and she knew her daddy was thinking about her.  Remember, this doesn’t have to be anything fancy, but it does need to be consistent.  
  • Send a transitional object, such as a favorite stuffy, toy, or blanket with them. This reminder of home can bring a sense of security in an unfamiliar place.
  • Don’t sneak away.  While it may be tempting to sneak out, children become even more afraid if the separation is abrupt and unexpected.  Sneaking away can also cause the child to mistrust you. Remind your child that you will be back at the end of the day, you love them, and will be thinking of them.  When you do pick them up at the end of the day, reiterate that you came back to get them. 
  • Remember that teachers are your allies and your child’s advocates! They have done this before and know how to help both you and your child with this transition.  Many providers will have a set routine for you to follow, aimed specifically at easing transitions for children.  If what you’re doing isn’t working, work with your child’s teachers to come up with a different plan for drop off. 

Tips for Parents Experiencing Anxiety

It’s perfectly normal for parents to experience anxiety during this transition too.  If you are feeling worried or guilty about leaving your child at school/daycare, they could sense this.  The more calm and confident you are, the more confident your child will also feel.  Here are a few things you can do to ease your own stress:

  • Get to know your child’s teacher.  Ask about their routines for drop-off, schedule for the day, naptime, toileting, and lunch.  Through these discussions, you can also give the teacher information about your child.  The more the teacher knows about your child, the more easily she can customize care for your child. 
  • Remember, the right thing to do is not always the easy thing to do.  This experience for your child is a life lesson. It’s the beginning of many situations in which the child learns to adapt and thrive. While it’s difficult to watch your child struggle, they will learn and grow from the experience, and will be ready for the next transition when it comes.  Develop a mantra to remind yourself that this is the right thing to do for your child. Something like, “my child will be better prepared for life,” or “this is the right thing for my child at this time.”
  • Have patience with your child.  Remember, all children develop at their own pace.  It may take months for your child to adapt to his new environment, especially if there are other changes happening at home. The key is consistency!

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