How to Manage Separation Anxiety During Early Years


child hugging a woman

Separation anxiety is a perfectly normal part of a child’s development.

Whether they’re trying something new for the first time or starting nursery, it can be very daunting and it is common for children to feel anxious. They may experience emotions that they have never felt before and will be unsure how to manage these feelings.

Especially in their younger years, children spend a lot of time with their parents and become very attached. This can make it difficult for them to leave their parents, even when they are being left in a safe and secure environment.

Children look to their primary caregiver for guidance, support, love, and affection and do not understand why their caregiver has to leave, even for short periods of time. Unfortunately lots of parents have to work whilst their child is young and seeing them so upset can be traumatic.

But as we’ve touched on, separation anxiety is normal and often something children grow out of. In this blog post we’ll explore the different ways parents and practitioners can help with this process to make the child feel more at ease.

What is Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is an overwhelming feeling of panic and fear when a child realises their primary caregiver has to leave.

This happens a lot in nursery schools when children are first experiencing being away from their parents for an extended period of time. At such a young age, children are unable to comprehend why their parents are leaving them behind and will often throw tantrums.

This could involve screaming, crying, or clinging onto their parents’ legs in an attempt to make them stay. The child will feel absolute despair and it can be a very stressful experience as parents often feel guilty for leaving them behind.

The reassuring thing is, that this often passes very quickly. After 5 or 10 minutes, parents can usually peek through the nursery window and see their child happily playing as if nothing happened. Children are very quick to settle, and although it seems traumatic and challenging at the time, this is a normal part of their development.

And it gets much easier. The more time they spend away from you, the more comfortable they’ll start to feel as they’ll understand that you’re coming back for them.

child holding a mans finger

What Age Does Separation Anxiety Affect?

Generally, separation anxiety is strongest at the age of eighteen months which is around the time that a lot of children start nursery.

However, it’s not unusual for children to experience separation anxiety for much longer into their childhood. It might begin before their first birthday and then reoccur until the age of 4 which is when children transition into primary school.

Whilst the intensity and duration of the anxiety varies a lot from one child to the next, the main thing to remember is that it is normal. Some children are more outgoing and sociable so they will integrate into a nursery environment much quicker.

Other children can be more reserved and quiet, sticking more closely to their caregiver when they enter social situations. It’s important not to compare your child too much as they are individuals and their confidence will grow at their own rate.

By implementing various strategies and techniques, you can make the process much more manageable to give you and your child peace of mind.

What Are the Symptoms of Separation Anxiety?

Separation anxiety is defined as the feeling of panic children experience at the departure of their primary caregiver. However, as a parent and nursery school practitioner, it can be useful to spot other signs of this type of anxiety.

By understanding how children behave and react to the situation, you can put strategies in place to make the process more comfortable for them.

  • Refusal to go to nursery. Children will do anything to stay at home and will start to throw a tantrum when they know they are going to nursery.
  • Reluctance to go to sleep. Separation anxiety can make children want to sleep beside their parents and fear the thought of being left alone.
  • Complaints about feeling sick such as a headache or stomach pain. This can come on at the time of separation, or before, as children might be trying to stay off nursery to avoid the situation.
  • Being clingy with their caregiver. Children might follow you around the house or cling to your arm or leg if you attempt to leave them. They like to be close to you and will often want to be able to see you so they know you’re still there.
  • Unreasonable amount of fear. Children might not think you’re ever coming back and that they will not see you again.
  • Asking where their parents are. Children like to know where their parents are as this gives them reassurance that they will be returning.

If you’re worried about the intensity of these symptoms, or if they worsen, your child might be experiencing social anxiety disorder. In contrast to social anxiety, this is when children experience extreme symptoms which are unusual for their age and stage of development.

As we’ve covered, social anxiety is perfectly normal and will usually improve once children get used to their nursery school. However, in some cases these symptoms can persist and worsen, even affecting a child’s friendships and relationships in later life.

If you have any concerns about your child, always seek professional advice.

man and child drawing with pencils

How Can Nursery Practitioners Help With Separation Anxiety?

As a nursery practitioner it can be challenging to manage children with separation anxiety as all they want is their parents.

However, by understanding how to approach this sensitive situation, you will be able to put them at ease. You play a vital role in this process as you need to provide a safe and secure environment which they want to engage in.

From the moment you greet a child in the morning to the language you use in conversation, it’s important you make a child feel welcome. Something as simple as a smile or offering them to take your hand, can make children feel more relaxed and confident when stepping away from their parents.

Below are a few key pointers to consider when a child is experiencing separation anxiety.

  • Conduct yourself in a calm and confident manner and distract an upset child with an interesting activity. This will take their attention away from leaving their parents as they will be absorbed in the activity instead.
  • Children like familiarity as this helps them feel more comfortable in their routine. You should make sure a designated person meets and greets the same child each morning, as this will help them build up a relationship with them.
  • Having something from home can help a child feel more comfortable. Again, it helps build up a sense of familiarity as they get used to a new environment. You should allow the child to keep an object, such as a teddy or blanket for comfort. As the child starts to feel more comfortable, you should encourage them to leave this object in their bag or tray which is a good indication of their progress.

By having an awareness of the above principles, it will help all parties involved to feel more comfortable. As their teacher, you will know how to manage the situation better which will make you feel more confident in your role. For a parent, this gives you reassurance that your child is in safe hands and that their feelings are respected.

This is a delicate situation and should always be approached with care and understanding.

How Can Parents Help With Separation Anxiety?

For children with normal separation anxiety, meaning those experiencing the symptoms outlined above, there are lots of things parents can do to help.

In most cases separation anxiety improves on its own as naturally your child becomes more settled in their routine and is more familiar with the separation process.

Any parent will know firsthand how distressing it is to see your child upset. When you have to go to work, the last thing you want to be worrying about is your child and how they are coping. Separation anxiety can put a huge strain on any caregiver and can make them feel a sense of guilt. They believe they are doing something wrong and should stay with their child.

However, by understanding some simple steps, you can begin to make this process easier for both you and your child.

  • Practice makes perfect. To get your child used to being away from you, try to leave them with another caregiver such as a family member for short periods of time. As your child gets used to being separated from you, you can start to leave for longer and travel further.
  • After naps or feeding time, schedule some time for separation. Babies are more likely to experience separation anxiety when they’re tired or hungry so this is the perfect opportunity to trial it at home.
  • Always keep your ‘goodbye’ quick. Either give them a little wave or kiss on the forehead as this is reassuring behaviour.
  • Leave without fuss. You should tell your child you are leaving but that you will return, and then go. There is no need to make it a bigger deal than it is as this will further add to their anxiety and prolong the process.
  • Always keep your promises. For your child to develop the confidence that they need to manage separation, it’s important you return at the time you promised.
  • Familiarity is key so try and keep familiar surroundings when possible and make new surroundings feel more like home. You could have a babysitter come to your house so your child is in their own environment. When your child is staying away from home, encourage them to bring a familiar object such as their favourite toy.
  • Have a consistent babysitter. If you hire someone to look after your child, try to keep them job long term to avoid inconsistency in your child’s life.
  • Try to stay strong and never give in. You should reassure your child that everything is fine and set consistent limits. This will help your child adjust to separation better.

child wearing a green jumper

How Can Learning Journals Help With Separation Anxiety?

At Learning Journals we understand that being separated from your child can be very stressful. For lots of parents, going to work is essential and leaving your child at nursery can’t be avoided.

What‘s more, it shouldn’t be avoided as the nursery setting provides your child with the foundations for future education. During these early years, they develop their cognitive and social skills which puts them in good stead for further learning.

Being at nursery should be an enjoyable experience for your child, and given time, it will be. Separation anxiety is a challenging but normal part of this process and by implementing the correct strategies it will get easier.

As you can’t be with your child during the working day, we want to make sure that you still feel involved in their learning. With our online platform, teachers can easily record, upload, and share limitless observations of your child at nursery. You can view your child’s profile at any time and comment on the observations to help you feel included.

This is especially important if you are feeling worried about leaving your child if they are experiencing separation anxiety. By being able to see them happy and playing at nursery, you will feel much more reassured and relaxed that you have made the right decision.

As we covered earlier, children usually settle quite quickly once a caregiver has left them, but for your own peace of mind, you can see this for yourself through the Learning Journals platform.

Interested in finding out how the product works? Request a demo and see the benefits for yourself!

How to Manage Separation Anxiety During Early Years

Separation anxiety is a normal part of a child’s development and can happen in any situation where their primary caregiver has to leave them for a period of time.

In nursery school this can be particularly daunting, as they are experiencing lots of new emotions for the first time and they do not understand the concept of being left behind.

For a child, a parent, and nursery school practitioner, this can be a difficult process and needs to be approached calmly and sensitively. Fortunately there are lots of strategies both parents and teachers can put in place to make the transition a lot easier.

The most important thing is to make the child feel comfortable that their caregiver will be returning. Once they have experienced this a few times they will start to learn that this is a normal part of their routine.

Learning Journals is with you every step of the way to provide you with total reassurance. Whether you’re a teacher who wants to share observations with a parent who might be worried, or a parent who wants to feel more included in their child’s learning, our platform has it all.

You can either request your free trial or get in touch with a member of the team for more information.

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