I am a toddler teacher at a child development center. Sarah, a 17-month-old, recently began attending our program. When I first met Sarah I could sense her reluctance to attend our program. She clung to her parents and ignored the other children playing. I thought Sarah would “warm up” once she had a chance to meet all of the children. Sarah has been in our program for more than a month now. Each day she screams and cries when her parents drop her off in the morning and appears sad throughout the day. She constantly asks for her mother and refuses to join in group play. Her mother is very concerned about her daughter’s behavior and is considering removing her child from our program and child care in general. What can I do to reassure Sarah’s parents that this is just a passing stage of development? How can I make Sarah’s separation from her parents easier?
– Isabelle Waters, Happy Days Child Development Center, Houston, Texas
Most experienced child care providers will attest to the difficulties of assisting parents with a child who doesn’t want to spend his or her day in a child care setting. This phenomenon is referred to as separation anxiety. Separation anxiety is a normal phase of development beginning with mobility at around six months and intensifying from 12 to 18 months. It is during this phase that children may experience intense emotions when separated from loved ones. Although it is difficult to reassure a child who misses the familiarity of home and family, there are ways for child care providers to help parents with this sensitive time in their child's life. Here are some helpful tips:
- Offer practice sessions. Invite parents to bring their child to the child care program several times before they leave the child. Have the parent stay in the room in sight, then have the parent leave the room for short periods of time. Repeating this process over several visits should help reassure and calm a child considerably.
- When a child experiences separation anxiety, many parents blame themselves. Feelings of guilt and failure are quite common. Explain to parents that their child’s intense reaction is actually a measure of how secure a child feels. The child experiences anxiety because he or she is very attached to Mom or Dad or other loved ones. (We now know that securely attached children, when eased into new situations, tend to become independent more quickly than those without a strong attachment.) Telling parents they have done a good job developing a strong bond with their child will help ease their anxiety.
- Exchange a friendly conversation with the parent while smiling. This shows the child you are a safe person that the parent likes and trusts.
- Suggest that the parent bring an object from home that helps their child feel secure while the parent is away.
- Depending on the age of the child, suggest fun activities that you can do together while Mom or Dad is at work.
- Help parents understand the importance of routine. Separation problems are often rooted in a fear of the unknown rather than from the actual separation from the loved one. To ensure that a child understands what to expect, suggest that the parent explain to the child where they are going, what they will be doing, who will take them, and who will pick them up. Predictability minimizes anxiety for the child.
- Tell the parent to say goodbye to their child. This is an opportunity for the child to learn to separate. It is confusing and upsetting for a child to find out that their parent is not around. Let the child see the parent leave and return. The child will soon realize that his or her parents are leaving forever. Since this is a sensitive period developmentally, some children will have extreme difficulties at first. To these parents, suggest that they say goodbye and wait in the car. Tell them that you will come and get them if you cannot calm the child.
Sherry Warner, Ph.D., holds a doctoral degree in clinical psychology. She has specialized in working with young children and adolescents for 13 years. She works as a consultant and designs, develops, and conducts workshops for children of all ages. In her free time she enjoys long walks in the trees with her young daughter.