Separation Anxiety: How To Navigate The Transition

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At one time or another, most children will show some anxiety when they separate from their parents. Starting a new venture — whether daycare, preschool or a first sleepover — often includes a mix of complex emotions for kids and parents alike.

"When a child has to separate from the person they spend nearly all of their time with, it's developmentally appropriate for them to be distressed, especially if they're in a strange new place," says Nakia Allen, M.D., a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health System. But separation doesn't have to be traumatizing. In fact, it's an opportunity to help your child gain some independence.

Minimizing Separation Anxiety

It's natural for kids to feel anxious when separating from their caregivers. The fear may set in well before the first birthday and crop up several times until age 4 or 5. It can even happen days or weeks after a new transition, when you think everything is fine.

The good news: There are a number of strategies you can employ to minimize separation anxiety for both you and your child:

  1. Do your homework: If you're leaving your child in daycare or starting a new preschool, research the facility so you know the routine. Preschools and childcare facilities are increasingly offering apps and other tools to help parents feel more connected to their children throughout the day. Knowing your child is in a nurturing environment can help both of you better manage the separation.
  2. Check yourself: It's normal to worry when you drop your children off in a new environment. But it's important to remember children respond to parents' emotions. If you hesitate, your child will feel unsafe. A better bet: "Get familiar with the school or daycare's administrator and check in with her instead," suggests Dr. Allen.
  3. Create a goodbye ritual: While a clear-cut morning routine might get you to school on time, it's also important to have a plan for your final goodbye. Maybe it's a special handshake or a kiss on the nose, or maybe you hand your child a small transitional object from home (a stuffed animal, photograph or even a smiley face you draw on their hand). "Daycares are beginning to introduce a sort of ritual where they help the child transition each day with the same routine," says Dr. Allen.
  4. Don't linger: After you say goodbye, tell your child you'll be back soon and offer some reassuring words. Then walk out the door. If you linger and try to wipe away tears, you'll be setting yourself up for greater anxiety for both you and your child.
  5. Do a trial run: Bring your child to the daycare or school a few times before the first day — even if you can't go inside. Walk through the drop-off and goodbye routine so your child knows what to expect on the first day. Read books about what the first day of preschool or kindergarten will be like. You might even drop your child off with a friend or family member so they can get comfortable being without you for a few hours.
  6. Return on time (or early): Plan ahead so that you can return to school or daycare early or on time. If you're late, your child may feel more anxious, not just on that day, but also in the days following.

Related Topic: Toddler Tantrums Tamed

Know What To Expect When Separation Hits

Separation anxiety may cause kids to regress. A toilet-trained toddler might suddenly begin having accidents. A kid who sleeps soundly through the night may begin waking up at 3 a.m. No matter what the fallout, don't fret.

"It's important to understand how resilient children really are," Dr. Allen says. "Allowing them to be independent in a safe environment is a key part of development." The truth is, your child will likely settle down after you leave and happily forget why they were fussy to begin with. Within days, or sometimes weeks, the tearful exits will come to an end.


To find a doctor or pediatrician at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-HENRYFORD (436-7936).

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Dr. Nakia Allen is a pediatrician seeing patients at Henry Ford Medical Center locations in Dearborn and Detroit.

Categories: ParentWell