Dealing with Separation Anxiety as Children Return to Nursery

Whether your child is returning to their childcare setting after lockdown, or they’re going for the very first time, it’s natural for them to feel unsettled and on edge. Separation anxiety is common in children between 6 months and 3 years, and may be exacerbated by having spent so much time at home with their parents. How can parents and carers help children manage their anxiety and enjoy their return to nursery?

What is Separation Anxiety?

According to the NHS, separation anxiety is ‘a sign that your baby now realises how dependent they are on the people that care for them’. This can include grandparents, childminders and siblings; essentially anyone who is closely involved in their care. As babies become more aware of their surroundings and the strong relationship they have with their carers, they can feel unsafe when those people aren’t around. This growing awareness can make them feel upset and anxious in new situations or with new people.

Whilst separation anxiety is usually associated with small children, it can also impact older children and even adolescents. The coronavirus situation that has required children to spend long periods of time away from school and nursery could create issues for children who are normally happy to be apart from their parents. However, it should disappear as your child adjusts to their new situation.

What Does Separation Anxiety Look Like?

Separation anxiety presents itself in different ways in different children. Depending on how old your child is, they may not be able to recognise what the emotions they are feeling are, or know how to communicate them to you. Whilst older children may be able to verbalise that they are feeling scared, younger ones may act out in unexpected ways.

Some behavioural changes to look out for include:

  • Difficulty controlling temper
  • Regressive behaviour (eg. bedwetting, thumb sucking)
  • Sadness, listlessness or a lack of interest in favourite activities
  • Changes to sleep or appetite
  • Withdrawing from social circumstances
  • Abnormal clinginess to parents or caregivers

The most important thing to look out for is a sustained change in your child’s behaviour. Whilst a degree of clinginess is to be expected in any child entering a new situation, if it continues over a week or two, they may be experiencing an abnormal level of separation anxiety.

How to Deal With Separation Anxiety

It can be distressing for parents to leave anxious children in the care of other people. You may feel upset by their tears or worry about the effect it has on your child to be distressed every time you need to leave them. It’s important to remember that it is natural for your child to feel anxious when you are not with them, so you shouldn’t feel guilty when you inevitably have to give some attention to other areas of your life. Separation anxiety is a sign of how strongly you have bonded with your child, and how much they trust you.

Learning how to feel safe and without you is a very important part of your child’s development, so don’t give in to your feelings of worry or guilt. Children need to develop their independence, so putting them in situations where they have to cope without you is actually very helpful for them, even though it might not feel like it in the short term. Here are some tips on how to help your child through their feelings of anxiety.

Practice short separations to begin with

Start small by leaving your child with someone else for short periods of time, for example, for half an hour whilst you go to the shops, or on a short play date. Gradually work towards longer separations so that by the time your child goes to nursery they have plenty of practice in spending time away from you and with other people. Time spent preparing your child for nursery will make the separation much easier for both of you.

Create quick goodbye rituals

Long, drawn out goodbyes won’t help either you or your child, and will only serve to prolong the anxiety. Develop a ritual with your child which signifies that you’re leaving, but also reassures them that you are coming back, whether it’s a few quick kisses, a firm hug or handing over a special toy or blanket.

Give full attention

When saying goodbye, give your child your full attention and don’t allow yourself to be distracted. Be loving and affectionate, follow your goodbye ritual and leave the room immediately. Make saying goodbye a positive time, by smiling and acting confident and happy, even if you feel sad or worried yourself on the inside.

Be consistent

Try to do the same ritual at the same time each day you say goodbye to your child. A consistent routine will allow your child to build trust in you and develop their self-confidence at the same time. It’s also very important to be consistent by sticking to your promise of returning. Try not to be late as being the only child left when all the others have been picked up could exacerbate feelings of worry and abandonment.

Be specific about when you will return

Though your child can’t tell the time, you can still communicate when you will be back to collect them. For example, tell them ‘I’ll be back after lunchtime but before your afternoon nap’. This sets some parameters that your child understands and gives them confidence that you will return. Once these parameters are set, it’s vital that you stick to them so that your child can relax and enjoy themselves, safe in the knowledge that you will come back when you’ve told them you will.

Conclusion

It’s natural for children to feel worried when you leave them, but this anxiety should quickly settle down once they feel confident that you will always return for them. By not drawing out your goodbyes, being consistent in leaving and returning and remaining calm and happy yourself, you will help your child get through this potentially distressing time with ease.

Dealing with Separation Anxiety as Children Return to Nursery