What is separation anxiety?
From around 6 months of age parents will notice that their baby will become distressed when separated from their primary carer. Even a quick trip to the bathroom can cause a highly dramatic outburst! Your child has hit the developmental stage where she is suddenly capable of “representational thinking” - meaning that she can picture you when you are not around…and you not being around is simply not good enough!
As your child progresses into toddler-hood, their desire for independence is only tempered by their desire for your continued devotion and 100% attention. Whilst most children will suffer separation anxiety in some form at intervals throughout their childhood, their early years (0-5) tend to be the most intense age for this. So what does this mean for starting nursery and what can you do to help?
Starting nursery – baby steps
The first few days at nursery are often fraught with emotion for both parent and child. Let’s face it, whilst some kids breeze into nursery without a backward glance most will cry and cling to you at minimum whilst a small but significant number will cry so hard as to give the impression they have a lost a limb. Perhaps that’s what it feels like?!
So what do you do? How do you help your child settle and allow yourself to leave without collapsing in a tearful heap at the reception desk?
Here are our top tips for preventing and managing the dreaded separation anxiety...
1. Your attitude and body language will become your child’s behaviour. Yes. This. Experienced nursery teachers can often the spot children who will have a hard time starting nursery – why? Because parent and child enter the building clinging to one another, because the parents linger too long before leaving and because frankly, you look just as distressed as your child!
So the night before your child’s first day, sit down and write a list of all the good things that will come from introducing nursery into your child’s life – if you are returning to work perhaps it is financial security and career progression? If you are a stay at home parent, perhaps nursery will allow for some sanity saving ‘me time’ or a few precious mornings one on one with a sibling. Whatever it is, remind yourself that your child is going to benefit too!
Picture your child two months from now – happy and enthusiastic for nursery and leaping out of your arms to get stuck in with their friends and fun activities…A good quality nursery is not something you inflict upon your child, it will bring friends, learning and the loving care of qualified and dedicated adults. Believing that your child will thrive at nursery is the first step to a happy transition and tear-free separation from you.
2. Make use of ‘settling in’ periods. Gradually building up your child’s exposure to her new environment is a great idea, if you can make it work around your life. A couple of hours a day to begin with is ideal and should help to make the transition gradual and less traumatic. If you are working parent and can’t make this work – please don’t fret. The fact that other parents will take advantage of shorter days means that nursery staff have more time to concentrate on your child within a small group. Everyone’s a winner!
3. Don’t linger! We can’t emphasise this enough. Nursery teachers are used to parents who say ‘I’ll just get him settled, then I’ll go’. Trust us – they may be smiling but inwardly they know this won’t work…your child needs to learn to settle without you. You can sit on the floor with the building blocks for as long as you like, but the second you go they result will be the same. Tears! Moreover, your lingering in class is not terribly fair on other children whose parents can’t be there. We recommend a short handover, a kiss, a BIG SMILE and a goodbye that uses the same words each day (‘Bye! Daddy will come back soon – have fun!’ Is plenty.) Feel free to collapse in tears once out of view!
4. Don’t peep through the window! Once you have said goodbye, go! Seeing your worried face peering in through the garden door is not going to help. Remember that your child’s feelings are always paramount, not your own comfort. Feel free to telephone the nursery for updates through the day, however.
5.Don’t sneak off to avoid tears. What could be more confusing for your child? Always say goodbye – be brave!
6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. At the end of each day, try to have at least a few minutes chat with a staff member to understand what went well in your child’s day. It’s important to know which adults and other children your child is forming bonds with so that you can talk about them at home. Talk about nursery every day in a happy and positive way. If separation anxiety continues for more than a couple of weeks, make an appointment with your child’s teacher to agree a helpful strategy.
7. Leave a security item. Something to cuddle in teary moments. If it is essential to you child, try to have spare at home, even special things can and will get lost in the madness of 15 or so children!
8. Enjoy your reunion, but keep it calm and just a little casual! An outpouring of relief and joy from you will simply emphasise to your child that ‘something is not right’ about them being at nursery. A lovely cuddle, a ‘how was your day?’ and away you go.
9. Stick to a routine. Routines gives children security and security is fundamentally the answer to separation anxiety.
10. Lastly, prepare yourself for the day when they leave you without a backwards glance. That’s when the real tears begin!