Strategies for easing separation anxiety in young children–Redleaf Press Quick Guides

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Young children’s behavior can be challenging at times, but handling it doesn’t have to be.  

Today we’re looking at SEPARATION ANXIETY, excerpted from Behavioral Challenges in Early Childhood Settings by Connie Jo Smith, EdD (Redleaf Press Quick Guide).

OBSERVED BEHAVIOR

  • A child cries and whines when a parent or guardian leaves her in your care.
  • A child reverts to behaviors of a younger child and refuses to participate or interact.

APPROPRIATE RESPONSE

The immediate priority is to acknowledge the feelings the child is expressing, provide comfort, and transition her to an enjoyable activity.

Infants and Toddlers

  • Hold the infant and provide physical comfort while talking or singing soothingly. Show the infant something visually stimulating, such as bubbles, a mobile, or a toy.
  • Reach your arms out and offer to hold the toddler. If she does not want to be held, sit next to her.
  • Acknowledge her feelings and say something like “You look unhappy that your auntie left.”
  • Encourage her to look at a photograph of her loved one posted in the room or in a class picture album.
  • Reassure her that her loved one will come back and that while she waits, she can play. Offer a toy that the toddler has shown interest in previously or that a family member or guardian has informed you she likes.

Preschoolers

  • Go to the preschooler who is distressed and sit near her. Acknowledge her feelings and invite her to talk about them. Say something like “You seem pretty upset that your dad had to go to work today. Can you tell me about it?” Let the child know her feelings are okay.
  • Ask if a hug or back rub might help her feel better. Provide that physical comfort if requested.
  • Reassure the child that her family member or guardian will come back. If you know when, show her on the clock or on a daily picture schedule.
  • Remind her about the photographs of her loved one on the wall, in a class album, or in her cubby that she can look at anytime.
  • Suggest an activity that the child has shown an interest in previously or that the family member or guardian has informed you she likes. Begin the activity with the child to redirect her.

DON’T encourage the family member or guardian to sneak off. Don’t take the child’s distress personally or as a sign that you are not a good teacher. Don’t tell the child that big girls and boys do not cry. Don’t tell her to stop crying. Don’t try to hold the child if she resists physical contact.

DEVELOPMENTAL CHECK

Infants and Toddlers 

  • Separation anxiety is not an issue for young infants, but it may begin to occur around six months.
  • The level of separation anxiety for infants and toddlers will vary. It may be influenced by many things, including the child’s temperament.
  • Older infants and toddlers can be redirected to activities within a few minutes of their loved ones’ departure.
  • While toddlers are increasingly interested in independence, they may have times of separation anxiety. They also lack the vocabulary to express their feelings about separation anxiety.

Preschoolers 

  • Some younger preschoolers may suffer from separation and stranger anxiety, but most have adjusted to temporary separations.
  • Older preschoolers who have not experienced separation anxiety for months may feel it renewed when changes occur in their lives, such as family illness, divorce, or a new baby in the family.
  • Preschoolers are curious and imaginative, which can sometimes lead to fears that adults consider unreasonable. To the child, however, these fears are real. New fears may cause separation anxiety to recur.
  • Preschoolers continue to develop and use language in more complex ways and are developing a better understanding of time, so a discussion about separation anxiety is possible.

Crying, clinging, and even tantrums are typical for children during separation anxiety, but the intensity may vary from child to child. The best solution for separation anxiety is to be prepared for the children’s arrivals and warmly welcome each child by name as she arrives. Address any anxiety in a sensitive way for the child and adult.

Observe: Recognize when individual children experience more separation anxiety so you can be better prepared to assist. Try to determine if the behavior follows patterns. Is it more likely on certain days of the week, or when the child arrives later or earlier in the day?

 Model: Offer positive greetings, say good-bye cheerfully, use language to express feelings, and become engaged in activities with children.

 Enhance:

  • Encourage family members and guardians to allow enough time for a smooth, unrushed drop-off.
  • Provide continuity of care by having consistent teachers. Limit the number of adults to avoid overwhelming children.
  • Allow children to bring items from home that may help soothe and comfort them.
  • Include family photographs posted on the walls, in classroom photo albums, or in electronic picture frames that rotate images.
  • Play hide-and-seek with objects. Point out how each object is still there even when the child can’t see it. Play hide-and-seek with children who are old enough to understand the game.
  • Help families create a happy ritual for drop-off and pickup that their children can anticipate and practice. Rituals may be a saying, like “Love you oodles and boodles,” or blowing kisses as the adult leaves.

From “Behavioral Challenges in Early Childhood Settings” by Connie Jo Smith, published September 12, 2017 by Redleaf Press, a division of Think Small. Copyright © 2017 by Connie Jo Smith.

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