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How to manage separation anxiety for children in early learning centres

Across Australia, thousands of children aged between 6 weeks old to five years go to an Early Learning Centre for long day care. For many, it’s when they first leave their parent or carer for a significant part of their day, spending time with other adults and children outside of their family unit. 

While time in a childcare setting is hugely beneficial in gaining valuable skills –  academic, physical, emotional and social – it’s when separation anxiety in children becomes apparent for many. Today, we’re looking at separation anxiety and exploring what it is, when it happens and ways to deal with it so your child remains happy in childcare. 

What is Separation Anxiety? 

Anxiety is a much-used term nowadays for a feeling of uneasiness caused by fear. Separation anxiety often refers to young children and the fear they experience leaving their primary carer – usually, their parents. More than likely, that fear results in sadness, anger and frustration.   

It’s important to stress how normal it is for children to feel anxious when separated from their parent or carer. It is extremely common, particularly when children enter a childcare setting and farewell their parents or carer for the first time. Understanding the signs of separation anxiety helps us to find an appropriate mechanism to manage it and overcome any fear. 

When Do Children Get Separation Anxiety? 

Separation anxiety isn’t confined to daycare settings – children can also feel fear when their parent walks from one room to another at home – although it can be particularly persistent in early childhood centres where a child might spend several hours away from family members at any one time.  

There are several key stages in a child’s development when they are more likely to suffer from separation anxiety in childhood: 

  • 6-8-month-old separation anxiety 

Lots of babies this age are first entering a day care environment when the primary caregiver returns to full-time employment. Babies begin to notice their absence and become fearful in the presence of new adults and children. 

  • 18-24-month-old separation anxiety 

Toddlers understand more about the world and recognise the parent or carer as the provider of their necessities and well-being: food, rest, play. Fear creeps in about who will fulfil their needs if the primary carer leaves. 

  • 4-5 years-old separation anxiety 

Worry about starting ‘big school’ begins for many preschool children, and they become fearful about what’s to follow, often displaying that fear through their emotions.   

It is worth noting that separation anxiety in toddlers and infants is extremely common and something most will grow out of by age 3.    

While anxiety does happen in older children during their teenage years, it is much less likely to be caused by the fear of separation from a parent and caused by other factors – academic pressure, peer groups and the challenges of adolescence.  

Recognising When Your Child Has Separation Anxiety 

Separation anxiety in children can happen at many stages of their early years. Yet the signs are quite similar across the age groups, whether a child is a 6-month-old or they skipped baby and toddler separation anxiety altogether and saved it for their preschool years. 

Common Signs of Separation Anxiety in Children 

Children have different ways of expressing their emotions. Most often, they will show one or more of the following signs of separation anxiety when attending an early learning centre: 

  • Visibly upset – crying excessively and loudly 
  • Clings to your legs and won’t let go 
  • Distressed; lashing out as the parent walks away 
  • Unable to rest during sleep times 
  • May refuse food, snacks and milk 

Ways to Reduce Separation Anxiety in Children 

Different symptoms of separation anxiety will emerge at various stages of a child’s early years. Yet there are similar mechanisms for managing and overcoming their concerns and fears.  

How Parents Can Help 

Unsurprisingly, a young child may not want their parent to leave them. It can be distressing for both the child and the parent when separating from one another – but there are ways to minimise that stress. 

Whether you are leaving a child for the first time or they continue to appear unsettled after several visits to daycare, here are some tips to help make it easier for everyone. 

  • If possible, only leave your child for a short period and gradually increase this as they become more comfortable with their surroundings.  
  • Explain you are going and how long you will be gone – even if you are leaving a baby. Talking to your infant helps them understand and process what’s happening. 
  • Allow them to take a favourite toy or comfort blanket to daycare. 
  • Tell your child you are going and you will be back. With a kiss and a cuddle goodbye, they are aware that you have informed them of your actions, so follow through. Hanging around does not help your child or you. 
  • Stay positive! Show your child it’s OK for you to leave and that they will be fine without you by using a calm tone and happy persona. 

How Childcare Educators Can Help 

It is a given childcare providers are responsible for providing a safe, nurturing and caring environment in which young children can thrive.  

  • Provide a welcoming, calming and inspiring environment – warm and colourful décor, comfortable furnishings and lots of space to express themselves. 
  • Be positive as you say ‘Bye’ to the parent or carer to show its OK they are leaving. 
  • Talk with the child about why Mummy or Daddy had to leave, how it’s OK and reaffirm that they will return. 
  • Help the child to engage in an activity quickly after they arrive. If possible, allow them to choose their favourite activity. 
  • Explain what their day will look like and what activities are included so they understand their routine. 
  • Listen to their concerns and remind them it’s normal to miss a parent – and that they are not alone and have lots of friends around them in daycare.  
  • Showing affection can help relieve the stress of a parent leaving for the day, so if the child is looking for a hug, we will hug them!  

Final Words 

It can be extremely challenging dealing with a child who doesn’t want you to leave them. Even when your childcare Educator tells you they are fine the moment you leave, it still leaves you feeling guilty. 

Remember that this is normal during the early years and all part of a child’s development as they learn to become independent. Early learning centres are equipped to support children during this transitional period and provide a safe space to overcome their fears.   

Want to know more about managing Separation Anxiety effectively? 

Arrange a chat with one of our Early Learning Centre Educators. We pride ourselves on providing children with a safe, secure environment where they are encouraged to learn while growing independently and socially. 

Come and see us in action! Book a tour now of your closest Kids Club Early Learning Centre – click here to find your closest one! 

References 

Raising Children
Separation anxiety in babies and children
Healthy Children
How to ease your child’s separation anxiety

If you want to learn more, call Kids Club Early Childhood Learning Centres or book a tour now of your closest Kids Club Early Learning Centre, click here to view your closest Centre.

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