How to reduce separation anxiety for children in care

Published on Wednesday, 01 August 2018
Last updated on Thursday, 09 July 2020

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Although some children embrace child care straightaway and don't look back, it is common for many youngsters to feel separation anxiety when Mummy or Daddy drops them off and disappears out the door.

In fact, between the ages of six months and two years, lots of children experience separation anxiety, and although it can be hard leaving your reluctant child in care, this is an important part of growing up, becoming more self-sufficient, managing emotions and learning socialisation skills.

Let's look at separation anxiety in more detail and see how you can help your little worrier feel better.

What causes separation anxiety?

Age plays a key role in how your child feels about themselves and their connectedness with you.

KidsMatter says that younger children feel separation more strongly because, 'They don't yet have a separate sense of self; babies see their parents or carers as part of themselves and feel a part of them is missing when they are apart.'

To compound matters, babies don't necessarily understand that their parent will return for them, and they may also feel anxious around unfamiliar people, including new caregivers.

The good news is that as your child gets older, their separation anxiety usually decreases as they develop a separate sense of self, understanding that Mum or Dad will come back and grow accustomed to their child care experience.

What are some common signs of separation anxiety?

Separation anxiety in young children often presents as:

  • Shyness
  • Crying
  • Screaming or tantrums
  • Refusal to leave their parent
  • Pretending to be ill

Although it can be frustrating or guilt-inducing when your child doesn't want to go to child care without you, there are some ways to make things easier for both of you.

How can parents help young children deal with separation anxiety?

As a parent, there are several ways to address your child's worries and help them manage separation distress:

  1. Work with your child's carer to provide a good child care experience. Focus on 'positive goodbyes' and explain the benefits of being away from Mum or Dad, such as having fun with friends at child care.
  2. Assure them that you'll be back. Children feel less anxious when they know their parent will pick them up again, so make this clear to your child.
  3. Show empathy. Whether your child is crying, screaming or gripping onto your leg as though their life depends on it, it's important that you understand the meaning behind their behaviour and respond appropriately. Acknowledge their feelings, tell them that you understand how they're feeling and show empathy, whether that's with a comforting cuddle or some soft words.
  4. Model calm, confident and positive behaviour. Children mimic their parents, so help your child feel safe and calm by appearing relaxed and reassured yourself.

Remember, although parents play an important role in helping children to feel less anxious about separation, young people do need to learn how to manage their own feelings.

KidsMatter says, 'It is important to find the balance between supporting and reassuring children and allowing children to have opportunities to practise managing their own emotions. By being emotionally available and showing understanding about children's fears, you help to manage children's distress when it is too big for them to manage on their own.'

How can parents help prevent separation anxiety?

Although it's common for young children to worry when Mum or Dad leaves them, here are three ways to stop separation anxiety, going forward:

  1. Talk to your child about what to expect. To help alleviate anxiety, explain what the day will hold, including when you'll drop off and pick up your child from care.
  2. Help them connect with caregivers. It can take time for your child to feel comfortable with a new caregiver, but show them how you positively connect with the carer to help your child build their own connection.
  3. Exude confidence. As mentioned above, children pick up on parents' emotions and behaviour, so focus on being a 'strong attachment figure' and this self-assurance will rub off on your child.

All in all, it's natural for babies and young children to feel anxious at the prospect of leaving Mummy or Daddy. However, going to child care without you is also an opportunity for them to gain independence, manage their feelings, build new relationships and prepare for 'big school' – with a little help along the way.

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