The prospect of starting school or daycare can be daunting for parents and children alike. It’s natural for a child to feel nervous and a bit worried when it’s time to say goodbye, and no parent wants to leave their child in tears or otherwise upset. Anxiety at the idea of separation is a healthy reaction and a recognized stage of development in children, so it’s reasonable to expect some crying or clinginess in early childhood. However, if the nerves don’t get better or start to worsen, you may be dealing with a more serious issue: separation anxiety.
What Is Separation Anxiety?
As babies grow and develop into toddlers, everything in the world is so new to them that they aren’t able to predict what is normal and safe as opposed to what might be dangerous. Babies younger than 8 months old are usually comfortable with new people, places and things.
From 8 to 14 months, children are developing a sense of the familiar. They recognize their parents and home as a comfortable, safe setting, and anything new is also threatening. Within this age range, it’s perfectly normal for a child to feel anxious when they enter a new place with new people — especially when their parents are not around.
Separation anxiety as a development stage usually ends around 2 years old, as children start to realize their parents will come back later, even if they are currently out of sight. The anxiety can return temporarily at later ages, especially when a child is stressed. Persistent anxiety may indicate separation anxiety disorder, which studies suggest affects about 4 to 5% of children and adolescents.
Recognizing the Signs of Separation Anxiety
It often seems like kids are bursting at the seams with emotions, so it’s sometimes difficult to tell what’s a result of their developing emotional intelligence and what’s due to separation anxiety. Symptoms of separation anxiety in toddlers include:
- Excessive clinginess
- Crying when you leave the room, even if it’s just a bathroom break
- Resisting bedtime
- Waking up and crying throughout the night
- Fear of strangers and even other caregivers
Separation anxiety and daycare go hand in hand, since toddlers are at the tail end of this critical developmental stage. Every child is different when it comes to growing out of daycare separation anxiety, and it’s common for them to act perfectly fine one day and have preschool drop-off separation anxiety the next. They may demonstrate their anxiety by grabbing onto your leg and refusing to let go, or they might feel the need to scream their head off to let you know about their worry.
Separation anxiety among toddlers in daycare or preschool may cause children to act uncharacteristically reserved and avoid interactions with peers and teachers. Alternatively, they might decide lashing out is the best way to show their distress, and end up causing conflicts with other children or antagonizing the teacher.
When kids get older and start attending kindergarten or grade school, things look a little different. These are some of the signs an older child is experiencing separation anxiety starting school or going back to school:
- Recurring distress when having to go to school
- Constant worry that something will happen to a parent or other loved one
- Refusal to leave the house for fear of separation
- Fear of being alone
- Nightmares about being separated from parents
- Complaints of physical ailments when away from home
It’s much easier to identify separation anxiety in school-aged children because they’re more capable of telling you what’s wrong and how they feel. They may not come right out and state they are anxious about being apart from you, but their behavior says it all. Their fear of separation often manifests in defiance, especially in the mornings before school or at your drop-off location.
Separation anxiety and school refusal are closely linked. About 2 to 5% of all school-aged kids display school refusal, and it looks different depending on the child. Some will outright put their foot down and say they refuse to go to school. Others might beat around the bush and fake being sick or insist they have a headache as a means of getting out of classes and staying close to you throughout the day. However they show it, school refusal is a huge red flag for separation anxiety.
Causes and Triggers of Separation Anxiety
A lot of parents can feel lost wondering what causes separation anxiety in kids, especially when their child has grown out of it for the most part. Causes of separation anxiety in preschoolers are pretty much the same as those in older children, and there are three significant catalysts parents should understand.
1. Starting a New Daycare or School
Entering daycare or starting school for the first time is a stressful endeavor for a little one. They’re suddenly in a completely new environment where adults expect them to play nice with others and follow a bevy of new rules, all without you there to provide comfort and guidance. It’s a lot for small minds to handle, and it’s natural for them to have a little trouble doing so. Preschool-age separation anxiety is often at its worst when toddlers are entering daycare for the first time.
For older kids, starting at a new school carries a lot of social expectations many children aren’t equipped to handle. While they’re learning the ropes at their new school, they might experience seemingly random episodes of anxiety or feel anxious throughout whole days. School separation anxiety in kindergarten is widespread, and shifting your child to a new school may emphasize that anxiety.
2. Going Back to School
Back-to-school separation anxiety is something we can all relate to. After a couple of months of hanging around the house and doing fun activities with you, your child probably isn’t too jazzed about the idea of going back to the structured setting of school. Kids who struggle with first-day-of-school separation anxiety may be reluctant to talk about the upcoming academic year, and might avoid the subject at all costs. If your child goes silent at the thought of the new school year or starts fidgeting with apparent nervousness, there may be separation anxiety at work.
3. Moving up in School
Graduating from one level of school to another comes with a whole host of new feelings, some of which may give rise to separation anxiety. A child moving from daycare to preschool, or preschool to kindergarten, will often be excited that they’re getting to do “big-kid stuff,” but that doesn’t preclude them from experiencing separation anxiety when it’s drop-off time.
Transitions of this kind come with so many new things that a child may feel overwhelmed and want to cling to you for safety and reassurance. They’ll be dealing with new teachers, subjects, kids and responsibilities, and it can all feel like too much in some moments. Transitioning from grade school to middle school is a significant source of separation anxiety in elementary school.
How to Help a Child With Separation Anxiety at School or Daycare
It’s not always intuitive to figure out how to deal with toddler separation anxiety at daycare or separation anxiety in kindergarteners. Dealing with an anxious child can make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, but it’s rarely a personal failing. Here are a few preschool separation anxiety tips for parents, which can help with easing separation anxiety in preschoolers and beyond.
1. Avoid Cold Opens
Fear of the unknown is the heart of separation anxiety. To your child, it feels like anything can happen to them in this scary new place, and it can be pretty frightening. To eliminate some of the perceived threat, it helps to do a dry run before the first day of school or daycare. Set up a time to tour the school or facility with your child, and point out the places they’ll be spending time.
Try and frame the new setting with a positive spin. If you walk by the cafeteria, ask something like, “I wonder what your favorite lunch will be?” If you swing by the playground, ask them what kind of games they think they’ll play there. Getting your child to engage with their new surroundings is a solid step in removing the scariness of the unknown.
2. Make Goodbyes a Ritual
Drop-offs are a frequent source of separation anxiety. Even kids who are old enough to cognitively understand there’s nothing to worry about and that you’ll be back at the end of the day may drag their feet when it’s time to get out of the car. Developing a ritual for saying goodbye can help soothe kids when it’s time to go to school or daycare.
Your ritual doesn’t need to be complicated, just consistent. Something like a secret handshake or giving a hug and high five before saying goodbye can be enough to put your child more at ease, and is one of the simpler strategies for managing separation anxiety at school.
3. Adjust Your Body Language
When you drop off your child and you know they have separation anxiety, it can be almost as hard for you as it is for them. However, it’s important to remember kids are often highly perceptive at picking up body language, even if they don’t do it on purpose. If you’re gripping the steering wheel, staring straight ahead and stiff when you hug them goodbye, your child may be able to sense something’s wrong.
To the best of your ability, try and relax when it’s time to take your child to school or leave them at daycare. It’s certainly easier to talk about it than it is to do it, but keeping your body language in mind can help you avoid the physical cues that might make an episode of separation anxiety even worse.
4. Develop and Follow a Routine
Life with kids is hectic at the best of times, but if it gets too out of hand, the instability can contribute to separation anxiety. If a child doesn’t know when they’re going to wake up or what they’re supposed to do before school or daycare, they have more time to get wound up before you even get out the door. Whenever possible, stick to a predetermined schedule.
It helps if you can squeeze in time to do things like packing lunches and setting out backpacks the night before. This kind of structure reduces chaos and helps kids get used to the routine of school or daycare more quickly.
5. Allow Some Agency
Here’s a crucial tip on how to help a school-aged child with separation anxiety: Give them some power over the situation. It can be something small like choosing their outfit or picking a special snack for the day, but letting your child have some influence over the situation can reduce the anxiety of going to a place where they have to follow rules and schedules all day.
It can also help to give your child a role in prepping for the day. For example, older kids can take some responsibility by completing a backpack checklist to make sure they have all the materials they need. Even toddlers can participate in preparing by doing things like putting their shoes and backpack by the door before bedtime. Allowing your child to take a role in getting ready to go can increase their sense of self-sufficiency and reduce the severity of their separation anxiety.
Don’t Forget About Yourself
There are a ton of strategies for separation anxiety at school, but one of the most important is to take care of yourself. School and daycare separation anxiety in kids is no walk in the park for any parent, but if you’re dealing with it frequently, you may be tempted to blame yourself or go all-out trying to fix your child’s anxiety. It’s critical for every parent to remember learning how to handle separation anxiety in preschoolers and older kids is a process that takes time.
It can help to reach out to other parents who have dealt with the same issue to see how they handled it and what their results were. Every child will respond differently to various strategies, but it doesn’t hurt to exchange ideas and expand your pool of ideas.
Above all, cut yourself some slack. Separation anxiety isn’t a result of bad parenting. It’s just something some kids are more prone to than others. As long as you continue to try to understand your child’s needs and take steps to make them more comfortable at school or daycare, it’s likely their anxiety will get better with time.
Consider a Different Environment
Some kids don’t feel comfortable in the average school or daycare setting. If you think your child could benefit from a more home-like atmosphere, consider Haymarket Children’s Academy. Our expert, personalized care is evident in our nursery program for infants to toddlers, our preschool and our private kindergarten with small class sizes.
Every child gets the personalized attention they need to develop a love of learning in a safe and welcoming environment. If you’d like to learn more about Haymarket Children’s Academy, our outstanding curriculum or how our setting can help with your child’s separation anxiety, contact us today.