Supporting Children with Separation Anxiety by Melissa Di Pietro

On my daughter’s first day of school this year, I woke up super early. It was pouring rain, and I felt more nervous than if I was about to start a new job. Before you become a parent, no one can quite explain the richness of your experiences surrounding your child’s development. Every new learning fills you with pride, and each heartache feels like your own. Her milestone of starting school brought about so much nervous excitement. However, whilst we felt prepared for the big day, we also allowed for flexibility with our plans and had an understanding we were not aiming for perfection. Whether you are dropping your little one off at childcare, a new class, kindergarten or school, preparing your child for separation is critical.

It is important to understand that experiencing some anxiety about starting something new is healthy for children (and adults). Fear of separating from caregivers usually begins around the age of 6 months, and this is a sign that a healthy relationship has been formed with their caregiver. There is a varied continuum of a child’s experience of separation anxiety, and for this article, I am sharing some general tips and support that both parents and early childhood educators may find helpful. However, this does not replace seeking out targeted professional help if required.

How you can support your little one with the transition? 

If your little one is finding it difficult to separate or you want to set yourself up for success when helping your little one transition to a new setting, you can try some of these strategies as a starting point:

Validate their feelings

Validate their big feelings alongside providing reassurance. We know that it’s normal to experience a wide range of emotions on the first day, so we can say things like: “I know starting school feels scary. I would feel the same if I was starting a new job”. We can balance our validation of their feelings with reassurance. This can sound like: “I can see you look nervous, but I know that you will be safe at kindergarten” or “I know it can feel scary when mummy leaves, and I want you to know I will be back to pick you up after you finish your lunch.”

Preparation is key 

Anxiety can be eased from an increased understanding of what to expect on their first day and beyond. Role-play is one powerful tool to achieve this. Act out some common scenarios that will happen at their education setting. You can also use your child’s favourite toys to help role-play what the new morning routine will look like, including the separation once an established routine has been set. We can also expose our children to lots of stories about starting school or develop a social story. This could be taking photos of their new school or drawing pictures together of everyday activities they will engage in at their education setting, for example, storytime with their teacher or playing in the yard with their friends.

Routine, routine, routine!

Creating a special routine just for you and your child to say goodbye is another important step. For my daughter and I, when she was at kindergarten, her educator would meet us in the foyer, we would give each other a big squeeze cuddle, and I would say to her I am giving her all my brave and that I would see her at pick up and then leave. Honour your child’s trust and always be truthful about what you are doing and avoid things like sneaking away without telling them. If your child does become upset at drop off, prolonging leaving can make it worse, as difficult as this one is, which ties into my next tip.

Keep in control!

We need to manage our own emotions because, as we know, emotions can be contagious. We are wired as caregivers to reduce distress in our children. I experienced such an internal struggle between that innate desire to remove her distress (e.g., having thoughts like “maybe we won’t go to kindergarten today”) and the rational part of my brain that knew that she is safe at kindergarten. It was so crucial for her development. It is important to think about how you are going to manage the separation for yourself. You could bring a support person or practice a mantra like ‘He is safe, and this is so good for him.’ Children are super perceptive, so this is one of those times where we do need to put on our brave faces and remain calm on the surface. Once the separation has occurred, then we can call that friend and have that much-needed cry!

Keep connected even when you are apart… 

There are so many sweet ideas about how to stay connected throughout the day. For example, my daughter and I had matching best friend bracelets that she wore to kindergarten, and she would rub the little heart when she missed me and needed to feel that connection. Other ideas might include spraying your perfume or aftershave on one of their toys and popping it in their bag or even simply drawing a little heart on their hand that they can press when they miss you.

Move it!

As we make our way to school each day, I often ask my daughter to select a favourite song which she sings along to. This support strategy was introduced quite organically for us. First, my daughter initiated requesting songs, and once this became our ritual, I recognised that it was a way to regulate her body on the 5-minute drive to school. If you can, walking or cycling to school is another great way to regulate our bodies, or even practising a few breathing exercises as you make your way to the school gate.

Talk about what is happening!

Finally, I think empowering our children with knowledge about what is happening in their brains and bodies when they are experiencing anxiety is immensely powerful. When children are calm and engaged in learning, then we can explore what happens in their bodies when they feel worried. This can be done through completing activities like body maps (e.g., my heart beats faster, my muscles feel tense). We can also explicitly teach children about the role the amygdala plays in our brain to protect us from threat (real or perceived) and what the fight, flight, freeze response is. Our brain really does work so hard to keep us safe. When we introduce strategies to regulate children’s bodies (e.g., breathing exercises), we can then make the explicit link for them as to how these strategies work to regulate the stress response in their bodies. I would highly recommend checking out Karen Young’s book ‘Hey Warrior’ as a tool for teaching these concepts to kids.

There is no magic wand, though, and our role as parents, caregivers or educators of young children is to show up, validate their big feelings and remind them that they can do this. My daughter almost always teared up a little at separation at kindergarten. I would remind her that she is still brave, as being brave is feeling scared and doing it anyway. Know that your children are brave and have the skills to cope with change!

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