Leaving your child for the first time, in a new situation or environment can be hard.
Even when we are used to leaving our little one with grandparents or at childcare, new situations keep popping up; like the first visit to a friend’s house or a school trip.
The anxiety we feel, not just emotionally but physically too and our early experiences of separation lay a foundation for how we cope with these moments as they appear throughout life.
At Free Rangers we always have new families joining and so supporting parents and children through the first few weeks and even months of settling into their new routine is part of everyday life for us. It is important to know that every child and parent deals with separation differently however, there are some strategies that might help the transition.
Some families may not need to employ any strategies and others might need to search and try out a few things to help their child cope positively with these challenges.
Importantly I want to reassure everyone that separation anxiety is a normal behaviour and is a wonderful expression of the bond you and your child share. In most cases extreme separation anxiety only lasts a short time and soon parents and children will have built up confidence and resilience to deal with their anxieties.
Tips to help your child
Preparation is Key
Firstly preparation for your child is key and this will need to be relevant to your child’s age. For young babies, practise leaving them with grandparents or a friend for very short periods of time, this could be to pop to the shops or take a leisurely bath (who remembers those?!). Be sure to say goodbye and give them a kiss, informing them you will be back. For younger babies who are breastfed, thought will need to be given towards how they will be fed when they are away from you. You will be surprised how many breastfed babies arrive at nursery unwilling to take a bottle or beaker, yet still make the transition quickly on to a bottle, sippy cup or beaker. For older children preparation could be telling them about the nursery, looking at pictures together and buying a nursery bag ready for their next adventure.
The Benefits of Routine
Secondly routine is important for young children. Think about how their week will look, who will be taking them to nursery and picking them up, are they at more than one place during the week (for example two settings) or with grandparents one day. Think about the routine and try to ensure it works so that you can be consistent. For younger babies the routine alone will be something they become familiar with however, for older children you could use photos (a visual timetable) on the fridge to let your child know where they will be spending their day or use a uniform to indicate a nursery day. If your child struggles with the unknown think about a visual way to support their understanding.
Finally drop off is a key time for children and parents who are dealing with separation anxiety. It is important to keep the routine the same and keep goodbyes quick and consistent. This process may involve finding a peg, having a big cuddle and kiss before a comment such as “see you after lunchtime” or “nanny will pick you up later”, for others this will just be a quick kiss and a hand over to a member of staff. In nursery be assured that for these children we will also have a routine, this may be to go to the book corner or find a favourite toy, all of this helps to settle the child and make them feel secure and comfortable. We also say to parents or carers to call in and check up on how their child has settled, so that we can monitor the time it takes a child to become calm and engaged in play and learning.
Acknowledging and Sharing Feelings
It is useful for parents to know that older children may talk about their anxieties at home and make comments such as “I miss you when I am at nursery” or “I don’t want to go to nursery.” For these children it is important to acknowledge their feelings and reassure them that it’s okay to feel sad or worried and miss mummy and daddy when they are not there. It is nice for parents to share their feelings too, being mindful to keep language age appropriate. Avoid asking too many questions or offering possible reasons for why your child may be upset.
For many children the above recommendations will successfully meet their needs however, some children may need something more, even for a short period of time and this is where a transitional object is hugely beneficial. Many younger children will have a dummy, blanket or special toy that can comfort them. If they don’t, a scarf (that has been worn by a parent) or a blanket that smells like home is always a good choice. For older children the ‘object’ doesn’t always need to be a physical thing, it could be a kiss in the hand to save for later or a huge hug to make sure children are ‘full’ of hugs before the parent leaves. Whatever the object may be, ensure it is consistent and made clear to the child, and the adult who is caring for them, so they can refer to it should they need too.
There are many bedtime story books that focus on common anxieties that children might experience. Cuddled up in bed, feeling safe, is a really good time to explore your child’s feelings and thoughts and through the medium of a book makes opening up discussion feel more normal. We’d recommend Cheeky Worries by Dr Patrick Davey and Dr Anna Smith to help children accept and understand their thoughts and feelings.
Tips to help you
Separation anxiety does not just impact on children, for some families the children are fine and settle well and it is in fact the parent that struggles to leave their child. To help you leave your child it is useful if you are able to understand their behaviours and be reassured that this is just normal behaviour for their age and stage.
Babies often cry as they have just started to understand ‘object permanence’ and so now know that when you leave you have actually gone. For most young babies once they learn that you will in fact return, they become more settled and make a bond with another caregiver who they know will keep them safe and ensure they have everything they need and nurture their interests. It is also common for nonverbal babies to cry when they see their parent, even when they have been content all day. This is often because they are overwhelmed by emotion upon your return and they are happy to see you.
For toddlers, their developing independence makes them more aware of being separated from their special people. Toddlers can give us some of the most impressive and spectacular tantrums when their parents leave, however they are often the age group that can be easily distracted with objects of interest long enough to engage and steer them on to more solid territory. Once calm toddlers also benefit from clear language and reminders about who will pick them up and when, so that they start to gain a greater understanding and feel safe within their new setting. They can also be comforted with hugs from a trusted adult.
Pre-schoolers are an interesting group as by this age they have learnt the impact of their actions on their parents, and often they can subconsciously play on this. We talk a lot about children ‘doing it for parents benefit’ and this is certainly the case for this age group. This is the age where consistency is key as a well settled child can again show signs of anxiety if the responses from their parents change.
Remember that separation anxiety is a normal, arguably healthy, behaviour and although it can be hard to witness, we want to work with you to provide your children with the emotional resilience that will enable them to cope with situations of stress and manage these periods throughout their life successfully due to the foundations laid when they are young.